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Rocket Boys: A Memoir, later released under the title October Sky in concert with the Universal Studios film adaptation of 1999, was originally published by Homer Hickam in 1994 as a short article in the Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine. At this point, Hickam had already been working for NASA, specifically in training astronauts for the first Japanese-American mission to space, as well as doing some freelance writing on the side. In the original article Hickam tells an abridged version of the story of himself and some school mates building a series of rockets as kids in the 1950’s, and eventually winning the National Science Fair Medal in 1960. The response to the article was overwhelming and Hickam was offered both a book and movie deal, leading to the full-length memoir, Rocket Boys (of which the subsequent title “October Sky” is an anagram,) and was followed by The Coalwood Way (2000) and Sky of Stone (2002).
Hickam’s story takes place in the real-life mining town of Coalwood, West Virginia, where coal mining is a way of life that Sonny (how Hickam is referred to throughout the book) is desperate to leave behind as soon as he can. His father, Homer Hickam Sr., is a foreman of the mining camp at Coalwood, a relentless “company man,” who works tirelessly and is often at odds with the coal miner’s union leader. Sonny’s mother, Elsie, is also the daughter of a coal miner, as well as the wife of one, even though it is a life she does not want for her son, and at times seems desperate to escape herself. This conflict between Sonny’s parents will play out throughout the course of the memoir, with Elsie taking an active interest, and even encouraging Sonny’s experiments in rocketry, while Homer Sr. largely ignores them preferring to focus on their eldest son Jim’s budding sports career. Sonny compares himself to Jim often, and often comes up short in his self-assessments. Jim is athletic and popular, seems to have the support of his father, expects to have a football scholarship to get him out of Coalwood and eventually begins dating the girl Sonny is in love with, Dorothy Plunk. Conversely, Sonny is nearsighted, terrible at sports, undervalued by his father and believes he doesn’t have any talents that will help him avoid working in the mines.
Sonny first becomes interested in rockets in 1957, when Sputnik is launched by the Soviet space program. It becomes his ambition to work for Wernher von Braun, a German aerospace engineer, who worked first for the Nazi party, and later the Americans after World War II. Sonny forms a rocket-building group along with his friends Quentin Wilson, Roy Lee Cook, Sherman Siers, Jimmy O’Dell Carroll and Billy Rose. They name their little coalition the Big Creek Missile Agency (BCMA) and after an early mishap that destroyed part of his mother’s fence, move their experimentation out of the town center to a place they dub Cape Coalwood, as homage to Cape Canaveral, Florida where NASA launches many of their rockets. Each boy contributes something different to the BCMA. For example, Quentin is the most intelligent and does most of the math; Jimmy helps by scrounging materials for the rockets as well as coming up with money making ventures so they can get the rest of the materials they need; Roy is Sonny’s best friend, and somewhat of a lady’s man, he tries his best to teach Sonny about getting girls; Billy has the sharpest eyes in the group, and is by far the fastest runner, as is consequently the best at chasing down rockets; Sherman, while suffering from a disability left by polio, is the most determined, observant and practical member of the group.
The boy’s rocket-building pursuits also garner the attention of various members of Coalwood. They are encouraged by the high school chemistry and physics teacher, Miss Reily, who eventually persuades them to enter the National Science Fair. Over the course of the three years the boys in the BCMA build their rockets, they constantly attempt to refine the process, looking for stronger materials, and specifically better propellants in order to reach higher altitudes. The quest to build better rockets and their repeated launch attempts begin to draw more attention from the townspeople, who help the boys in varying degrees. Notably, they are provided moonshine from a local bootlegger, which they use in a composite fuel they invent and name “zincoshine.” After Sonny’s first disastrous attempt to build a rocket on his own, using a flashlight tube, model airplane casing, and power from cherry bombs, the boys in the BCMA laugh a total of 35 rockets, all named after the Auk (an extinct flightless seabird). The final launch of Auk XXXI reaches a top altitude of 6 miles, and in so doing earns Sonny the respect from his father he so desperately craves.
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