Today, a book with a surprising subtext. The
University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
"Not another boys'
coming-of-age story," a friend says when I
recommend Homer Hickam's book, Rocket Boys.
But Rocket Boys does something remarkable
with that genre. It's been made into the movie
October Sky (that's also the paperback
title). I haven't seen the movie and may not
bother. It could hardly improve on the book.
Homer Hickam was fourteen in Coaltown, West
Virginia, when the Russians launched
Sputnik. The steel companies were losing
interest in Coaltown's deep mining operation. The
imminent death of the mine was obvious to everyone
but Homer's father -- one of the mine's senior
managers. Young Homer senses the decay of his world
on a visceral level. What he does see very clearly
is that he wants to build rockets. He wants to go
to work for Werner von Braun.
Football is king in Coalville -- no sympathy for
foreign rocketry. Homer looks for a book on
rocket-making. Of course, there is none. He
eventually recruits three friends, and they set out
to invent their own rocket. Now play for a moment
with that problem. I mean building a real rocket
that'll travel miles straight up!
You need a chemical propellant and a binding agent
for the fuel. You need to shape the fuel
within the rocket. You need metals to
withstand the temperature of burning fuel. The
shape of the necessary supersonic nozzle is not
only mathematically complex; it's also a completely
unexpected form. A true guidance system
would be far too complex. Without one, you need
accurate tail fins and a launch system to aim it
properly. You need means for measuring the height
of the flight.
All these things the four boys accomplished. They
did it against a backdrop of economic and domestic
chaos -- and in a world that couldn't comprehend
their work. I don't think I'm letting cats out of
the bag to say they eventually hurled a rocket six
miles into the sky and won a national science fair
prize as well.
On the surface, the book leads us through their
problem-solving process. But the problems of the
rocket fuse with the problems of Coaltown and
troubled family lives. As the tale unfolds, we're
hardly aware that we're learning college-level
thermodynamics, fluid mechanics, chemistry,
dynamics, and metallurgy. That's because each of
those issues mirrors into one or another of the
crushing problems that go with hacking a living out
of a dying company town. It is a remarkable piece
of multilevel story-telling.
Homer Hickam went on to become an engineer. He
never met von Braun, but in the 1980s he joined
NASA. He did meet the Russian engineers who
launched Sputnik. And, in 1997, an astronaut
carried one of his old rocket nozzles on the
shuttle Columbia. Only ghosts of his
childhood linger in the remnants of Coaltown. But
they're benign ghosts. They are that array of
surmountable trials we must all undergo if our
lives are to find any form or contentment.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
Hickam, H. H., Jr., October Sky (aka Rocket
Boys). New York: Island Books, 1999.
Toor, M., Rocket Boys. West Virginia, March
1999, pp. 24-25. (This book review includes photos
of Homer Hickam and his rockets.)
Hickam, H. H., Jr., On Writing Rocket Boys, October
Sky. West Virginia, June 1999, pp. 34-36. (I
am grateful to Mary R. Chaffey of Elkins, WV and
Pat Bozeman, UH Library, for providing both West
As a footnote to this story, I recently learned
that Dr. Alan (Russ) Geanangel, UH Chemistry Dept.
did much the same thing as Homer Hickam did, and at
about the same time, in Cadiz, Ohio. (Cadiz is
little more than a hundred miles from Coaltown.) He
and fellow student John O'Neil developed a rocket,
with encouragement from their chemistry teacher,
Lucy Patterson. Their rocket achieved an altitude
just under one mile. That was less than the Rocket
Boys managed, but they built a more sophisticated
two-stage device. (Bullard, J. B., Two Cadiz High
School Students Plan to Fire Multi-Stage Rocket,
Martin's Ferry Paper, ca. 1958.)
Launch of Shuttle Columbia, flight STS-87
Japanese astronaut, Dr. Takao Doi, is, at long
last carrying Hickam's science fair medal and
a piece of one of his rocket nozzles into
Image courtesy of NASA
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1998 by John H.