Coalwood, West Virginia in the 1950’s is an unlikely place and time to spawn a rocket scientist. The small, southern West Virginia mining town produced coal and little else. But in 1957, the Soviet Union’s Sputnik I satellite rocketed into space, and a fourteen year old boy from Coalwood became fascinated with rockets, so much so that he and his friends began building their own. Over the next few years, the “Rocket Boys of Coalwood,” led by young Homer Hickam, created a sort of “mini-NASA” in the coal mining town. Hickam, who went on to a career at NASA, has written several books, including Rocket Boys, which focuses on his first rockets. In 1999, the book was made into the film “October Sky.”
Homer Hickam (from www.ourwhitehouse.org)
Homer Hickam (from www.ourwhitehouse.org)

After the Sputnik launch, Homer “Sonny” Hickam devoted his energies to rockets. With his friends, he built and tested his creations. The height of their success at “Cape Coalwood” involved a rocket, Auk XXXI, which reached a height of 31,000 feet. Between the Sputnik launch and Auk XXXI, there were successes and failures of varying degrees (the first rocket managed a maximum height of six feet). He received an autographed photograph from his hero, Dr. Wernher Von Braun, and competed in the National Science Fair in Indianapolis. In addition to the other “Rocket Boys,” Hickam found support from several sources, including his mother, teachers and neighbors. They would prove invaluable, as the boys had many obstacles to overcome.

One of the boys’ most immediate challenges involved finding the materials to build their rockets and the chemicals to facilitate propulsion. A safe location for the launches had to be considered. In addition, the boys were conducting advanced scientific experimentation in an isolated, rural community. Today, they could find schematics and diagrams on the internet, which obviously did not exist in the late 1950’s. For Homer, specifically, there was also the problem of support; his father, a man who’s career revolved around coal mining, saw the boys’ rocket pursuits as a waste of time; boys from Coalwood were expected to become coal miners, like their fathers and grandfathers, and spending hours dreaming and planning to launch rockets into space seemed a futile effort.

Hickam’s tale is significant, both on a universal and an individual level. The boys’ persistence, creativity, resourcefulness and innovation are inspirational. There were many occasions where most would have given up the pursuit, but the “Rocket Boys” refused to give in to the obstacles, even when it seemed they would never reach their goals. Half a century later, in the age of the internet, iPods, and video games, children and young adults have infinitely more resources than the boys of Coalwood; the question is, do they have the motivation?

The "Rocket Boys" of Coalwood with one of the Auk rockets (from www.homerhickam.com)
The "Rocket Boys" of Coalwood with one of the Auk rockets (from www.homerhickam.com)
Hickam’s individual success can be attributed to his “Rocket Boys” days. He went on to serve as an officer in the United States Army in Vietnam, followed by a career at NASA, as well as a writer of fiction and non-fiction. For children and young adults from rural outposts, or troubled inner-cities, or those with parents who don’t seem to approve of their dreams, his story proves that intelligence and determination can be enough to escape the mundane and achieve greatness.

On a larger scale, the “Rocket Boys’” fascination with and pursuit of rocket science illustrates the reach and magnitude that the international space race had on the American public. In the late 1950’s, televisions were just becoming a fixture in American homes, and the Sputnik launch sent shockwaves around the country. The drama playing out in newspapers, television and radio between the United States and the Soviet Union captured the country’s attention in ways never seen before. For Hickam, in particular, the space race almost certainly changed the course of his life, as he pursued rocket engineering as a career. Homer Hickam and the “Rocket Boys” of Coalwood, West Virginia are a testament to what can be truly wonderful about America: ingenuity, persistence and, perhaps most importantly, the ability to dream, and the courage to pursue them.