Throughout the summer of 1958, explosions rocked the hills and hollows near Coalwood, West Virginia. The first blasts terrified miners and their families.
Had the mine blown up? Were the Russians attacking? But when the echoes died away, folks shrugged and said, "It's just those damn rocket boys!"The book seems to have the required elements; a noble, inquisitive young kid overcoming hurdles placed in front of him by family, location and education to achieve success, both in the short and long term. Throw in a little danger, teen-age angst, and a sexual coming-of-age subplot, and all the required elements for an engrossing story are there. Despite Hickam’s less than stellar prose, the story manages to effectively convey a bittersweet poignancy as the humble coal miner’s son journeys to the epitome of technological status: becoming a literal “rocket scientist”.While most of his peers in Coalwood, W.Va.
, in the late 1950s were enjoying their last years of sunlight before starting work in the mine that was the town's only industry and while most of the girls were enjoying their last few years of not being a miner's wife, Hickam was building rockets. Not bottle rockets, either, but the real things. As a young high-schooler in 1957, Hickam was fascinated by the early stages of the cold-war space race. Sputnik had just been launched by the Soviet Union, and the U.S. was trying desperately to answer the feat.
But in the earliest stages of experimentation, Hickam had about as much success as the pre-NASA American rocketeers were having. While Werner von Braun’s early efforts- one jeeringly dubbed “Kaputnik” by the press- often blew up on the pad, Hickam similarly succeeded only destroying his mothers rose garden when an early rocket exploded. Inspired by von Braun, the German scientist who came to be the symbol of America's rocket program, and a story in Life magazine that explained the general principles ( "You put fuel in a tube and a hole at the bottom of it''), he and his friends punched a hole in the base of a flashlight, filled it with cherry bomb powder and stuck it in the fuselage of a model airplane. Then they selected the perfect launch site, and accompanied by the obligatory countdown, sent Hickam's mother's rose garden fence streaking toward the stars.Repeated efforts by both rocket programs were finally rewarded by successes, and soon Hickam and his team of classmates were reaching higher and higher into the sky with their home made rockets. With each launch, Hickam and his partners refine their designs, especially of the crucial rocket nozzle, which directs the rocket exhaust and produces its propulsion.
For Hickam, the day of enlightenment was Oct. 5, 1957. That was the day his mother roused him from a Saturday morning slumber to listen to something scary on the radio. It was nothing but a steady beepbeep-beep, but the announcer said it was coming from something deep in outer space that was called Sputnik.
"What is this thing, Sonny?'' asked his mother. (As with all boys named Homer, the gods had benevolently given Hickam a nickname.) Hickam's mother knew her son would know because he was a voracious reader of science fiction and the science magazines to which his father, the mine superintendent, subscribed.
Hickam explained that Sputnik was a satellite orbiting the world with "science stuff in it'' and that it had been launched by the Russians. This would greatly upset his father, whose second vocation, after running the mine, was being an anti-communist. So while half of Coalwood, population 2,000, fretted about Sputnik and the other half went about the business of digging coal and washing coal dust out of clothes, Hickam formed an American response team. Enlisting his three best friends – Roy Lee, who had a car and looked a little like Elvis; the perpetually inquisitive and practical Sherman; and the girl-crazy O'Dell – Hickam decided to build a rocket himself.
At every turn, however, Hickam’s rocket program faced barriers. Not the least of which was from his family, which certainly deserved the moniker that was to be devised in later years: “dysfunctional”. Hickam’s father, a coal mine foreman, spent little time at home, and less as a father to his two sons. The few words of encouragement he seemed to have were reserved for Homer’s older brother, Jim, a high school football star. Hickam senior, rather than support his younger son, actually seemed to delight in thwarting Homer’s rocket experiments.
As a mine foreman, he denied Hickam access to the materials and machine shop that the mine could provide..