Follow DavidBennun on Twitter

order British As A Second Language from order Tick Bite Fever from

Homer Hickam Jr/
Rocket Boys

[The Guardian, Weekend magazine, 1999]

IF HIS family had guessed that Homer Hickam Jr had a future in the space business, they might have paid a little more attention. Mealtime conversations in the Hickam household tended to revolve around coal mining and American football; the obsessions, respectively, of Homer Sr and his elder son Jim. When fourteen-year-old Homer Jr announced at the dinner table that he was going to build a rocket, nobody took the blindest bit of notice. Except, that is, for his mother, Elsie. She thought about it for a while. “Well,” she said, finally. “Don't blow yourself up.”
   Homer Jr - “Sonny” to all who knew him - was as good as his word. Instead, he blew up his mother's rose garden fence, along with her bathroom scales, a fair quantity of her cookware and the household water heater. He also knocked chunks out of the brickwork of his father's office; stood accused - wrongly - of setting fire to several acres of forest; and left a smoking crater outside a local church. This would in turn lead to the sole casualty of Homer's rocket-building program, when the town drunk, a man by the name of Carson, fell into it one night and sprained his ankle. “God looks after fools and drunks,” the pastor, Reverend “Little” Richard, was fond of saying, but he was wrong on this occasion.
   Reverend Richard's nickname derived from a resemblance, possibly cultivated, to the singer. He was minister to the black population of Coalwood, West Virginia. Like any other Southern town in 1957, Coalwood was segregated. The black families lived up a dirt track west of the paved roads which skirted the white homes. Housing, education and worship were separate, shopping, dining and working mixed. And as coal was the only industry in town - indeed, the reason the town existed - the men were all the same colour when they came up out of the pit.
   The house nearest to the pit-head belonged to the Hickams, for as long as Homer Sr was in charge of the mine. In common with all the houses in Coalwood, and all the shops, roads, utilities and chapels, it was owned and maintained by the Olga Coal Company. Coalwood was a model town, unique in the West Virginia mining industry. Whatever the workers needed, they should have. A doctor and dentist, for a nominal charge. Running water and a proper sewerage system - no outhouses in Coalwood. Cable television, to bring in the signals lost in the surrounding Appalachian Mountains. A company store which, unlike those of other outfits, was not run to gouge its captive customers and leave them hopelessly beholden to the owners. A post office, a drugstore, even - for a while - a bakery.
   Over this American idyll, on October 5, 1957, flew the Soviet satellite Sputnik, the first spacecraft. It could not have caused more of a stir if it had plunged onto the town in a screaming fireball. The panic and pessimism which would build up across America in the coming weeks were immediate in Coalwood, where the people gathered at night to watch the blinking light track across the firmament, and the radio station broadcast Sputnik's stuttering signal in place of the customary rock'n'roll.
   For Sonny Hickam, dreamer, sci-fi fanatic and unexceptional student, Sputnik was like a sign written in the sky telling him to build his own rocket. As it happens, he would build thirty-five. His goal, at first, was relatively modest: to make them go. If he could learn to do that, he reasoned, maybe he could work on rockets for the government. And if you could build rockets, what - in an age before anyone had heard of astronauts - was to prevent you flying them? To the moon. To Mars.
   Homer Hickam, his boyish nickname long discarded, would fulfil at least one of his ambitions, although it would take him more than twenty years. After diverting himself with college, war and aqualungs, he went to work for NASA. He engineered spacecraft, although he came no nearer to the cosmos than the simulators in which he helped train the crews of Space Shuttle missions.
   But in 1957, in Sonny's mind, the sky was no longer the limit. By the time he was through with homemade rockets, Coalwood's entire citizenry had, one way or another, been caught up in his scheme. What started as a naive enthusiasm became the focus for his hopes and those of his friends, as well as for the divisions which split both his family and his town, father against mother, management against union, past against future. Plus it was a great way to get girls.

“SPUTNIK,” says Homer Hickam, “was a slap in the face for the country. We were supposed to send a satellite up first, because we did everything first, right? The belief was that the world was going to choose one of two ways to go, either our way or the Russians' way. And if it appeared that the Russians' system was so much better than ours, then the countries in Africa and Asia would choose to become communist. It astonished everyone and scared them. But I thought it was great. I loved the fact that the space race had started, and I loved the idea of being part of that, somehow, some way.”
   The porch of Hickam's home in Huntsville, Alabama is screened off to deter insects, and the occasional raccoon, with which his cats are foolish enough to pick fights. It was out here that Homer wrote the story of his childhood, Rocket Boys. The book has been a bestseller in the States, enabling him to retire from full-time work at NASA. The subsequent film is called October Sky - an anagram of Rocket Boys. Where the book portrays Coalwood with an honest sentimentality, the film is merely sentimental. It does capture the feeling of the town, and of its time; but Hickam himself seems to have been lost in the process. The Homer of the movie is neither the smart and audacious boy of the memoir, nor its droll, good-natured author.
   A neat, compact man, his open face ringed with greying curls, Hickam has that unruffled way of talking - down-home, but worldly all the same - peculiar to parts of the US South. His conversation is a curious mix of professional expertise and homespun wisdom, and you could argue that he is well entitled to use either.
   When Homer, as the teenage Sonny, took to building rockets, it was largely thanks to Disney World, the favourite children's TV program of the day. The show regularly featured an imposing, suave, self-assured presenter who in looks and demeanour bore a vague likeness to a blond, teutonic Cary Grant. Sonny idolised this television star. His name was Wernher von Braun. He was a rocket scientist. In the Second World War, he had built the V2 rocket, the flying bomb, for Germany. He had, as he would later remark, aimed for the stars and hit London. This flippancy was revealing of a man for whom developing the tools of space exploration was worth any cost. By 1957 he was America's rocket guru, and he confidently, almost casually, asserted that if America wanted a satellite of its own, he could send one up tomorrow. Just give him the word.
   Sonny Hickam, dreamer, sci-fi fanatic and unexceptional student, had never been so impressed with anything or anyone in his life. And when, 24 years later, he moved to Huntsville, it was to work at the Marshall Space Flight Centre, where Wernher von Braun's team of emigrés developed the Saturn boosters which powered the Apollo moon landings.
   The Germans had arrived in Huntsville in 1949. It was a charmless, sprawling municipality which produced little else beside cotton, chemical weapons and mosquitoes. Nowadays it brands itself “Rocket City” and the mosquitoes, at least, appear to have thought better of it and departed. Where the Hickam residence stands, secluded by thick woodland on Huntsville's suburban hillsides, it is very pleasant indeed. A little like Coalwood, perhaps, without the dust and the slag heaps.
   When Sonny Hickam began constructing rockets, was he was thinking about beating the Russians? Was he dreaming of conquering space? Or did he simply want a way to get out of Coalwood and into somewhere like Huntsville?
   Hickam's wife, Linda Terry, smiles fondly at him. “You just wanted to blow something up, didn't you, honey?”
   “Well, yeah, sure,” he allows. “I was a teenage boy. But my idea was, if I learned how to build a rocket, I could just go hire on with Dr von Braun. That's the way you did it in the coal mines, you had a skill of something, you just went up to the coal mine, you got a job. And then the problem came; well, how do you build a rocket?”

IN TRIBUTE to von Braun's Army Ballistic Missile Agency, Sonny Hickam and four friends formed the Big Creek Missile Agency, named for their local high school. The grandiose title belied the group's assets, which at that stage consisted of a broken plastic torch tube and the gunpowder from a dozen cherry-bombs, left over from the 4th of July. Nonetheless, it was with these meagre resources that they managed to destroy the fence around Mrs Hickam's rose garden.
   Next, with the help of the company's machine shop, they made four small rockets out of aluminium tubing, each with a carved wooden nose cone and a washer soldered to the base for a nozzle, and powered them with a mix of saltpetre, sulphur and charcoal known as “black powder”. Sonny wryly christened his rocket series Auk, after the extinct flightless bird. On the barren summit of Pine Knob, two mountains over, Auk 1 jumped six feet into the air and expired. Auk II went berserk, reaching a height of 20 feet during its convoluted flight, and smashed itself into the boulder behind which the boys took swift and undignified shelter. Auk III looped the loop, bounced off the nearby trees, and buried itself in the mountainside. It was with Auk IV that the Big Creek Missile Agency inadvertently launched its rocket attack on the Olga Coal Company offices.
   After that incident, Homer Sr barred the BCMA from company property. They retreated to a disused slag dump in a desolate valley some miles away, where they constructed'ôD`)ö om cannily a#ü°priated concrete and tin. This was to be their firing range. In keeping with their ambitions, they named it Cape Coalwood.
   Meanwhile, at Cape Canaveral, the USA's official rocket program had met with scarcely greater success. Determined to launch a “civilian” spacecraft, in visible contrast to the Soviets' military-based Sputniks, the government staked its prestige on a project called Vanguard. Come December 1957, the much-touted Vanguard toppled flaming from the launchpad like a wedding cake hit by a bottle bomb. It was a worldwide public relations disaster. “Kaputnik!” cackled The Daily Express, while The Daily Herald settled for “Flopnik”. Somewhat grudgingly, the Eisenhower administration conceded that the army, and von Braun, should carry the flag. A month later, von Braun successfully put the Explorer satellite into orbit on his first attempt. Sonny, of course, was delighted.
   “You couldn't have scripted this better. The Vanguard team, they're plodding along, they're just nondescript rocket scientists. Sure enough, it blew up. And von Braun comes along, he's going to save the country, and he did. He did exactly what he said he was going to do. To me it was just like, I wanna be on his team.”
   Sonny and his four friends - Quentin, Sherman, Roy Lee and O'Dell - were all sons, and for the most part grandsons, of miners. “It was kind of an unspoken thing:‘If you want to stay in this part of the country, you'll have to work in the mine.’ And also, the vast majority of kids could not afford to go to college.”
   Quentin, whose IQ was off the scale, came from a family so poor that he dreaded anyone seeing the house they lived in. The Hickams were relatively well off. Jim was sure to win a football scholarship, while their mother had saved enough money to send the younger boy to university. Worried by Sonny's apparent aimlessness, she alone encouraged him in his first experiments. “Coalwood's going to die, Sonny,” she told him. “You can't count on the mine being here when you graduate from high school. You can't even count on this town being here. You need to do everything you can to get out of here.”
   Homer Sr repeatedly forbade Sonny to have anything to do with rockets. He wanted Sonny to follow him down the mine; not to dig coal, but to be the engineer Homer himself was in all but title. Sonny was quietly defiant. He became one of the most determined and attentive pupils at Big Creek High School, tackling algebra and calculus with a tenacity he had previously shown only in his unsuccessful wooing of a girl called Dorothy Plunk. Some staff viewed the change with suspicion. The principal, Mr Turner, referred to the BCMA as “The pipe-bomb club.”

Sonny was eventually banned from giving presentations on the history of amateur rocketry. Instead he delivered a talk on the Loch Ness monster.
   These were not teachers who believed there was no point in tutoring future mineworkers. They took pride in giving a thorough education to all the children. Two years earlier the critic Rudolf Flesch had famously bemoaned the declining abilities of American schoolchildren, as compared to their Soviet equivalents, in his polemical article, Why Johnny Can't Read. Now, spurred by Sputnik, schoolwork across the country had suddenly become more rigorous and demanding. “The high school curriculum was revamped almost immediately. I remember thinking that The Russians launched Sputnik in 1957 and United States launched us in 1958, because all of a sudden our schools got a lot tougher. It was very difficult to make a good grade, the teachers really held your feet to the fire.”
   In time, Sonny's young, inspirational science teacher, Miss Reilly, secured for the BCMA a book called Principles Of Guided Missile Design. Until now, the Rocket Boys had been operating, albeit methodically, on a basis of trial and error. They painstakingly noted what worked and what didn't, even though they could only guess at why, and refined their rockets accordingly, one modification at a time. The whole town, and beyond, knew about their activities. Launches at Cape Coalwood meant a day out with free entertainment. People in their hundreds would drive from miles around to watch Sonny's ever larger and more sophisticated creations bolt cleanly into the sky, or better yet, explode. You could spot the first-timers. They didn't know to duck behind their cars when the countdown began.
   The BCMA's fame spread further still when a reporter from The McDowell County Banner began to chronicle their progress. The silvery cylinder burst forth in a fiery column of smoke and flame, ran a typical dispatch. Oh, fleet rocket, your thunder wanders down the valleys, startling deer and mountaineer alike. Oh, Rocket Boys, oh, Rocket Boys, how sweet thy missile's delight against the pale blue sky. A mile, a mile, they cry. We've flown a mile!
   At a mile up, Auk XXII-A was invisible to the naked eye. The boys calculated its peak altitude by timing the flight and applying principles of trigonometry and Newtonian physics. They were using a new fuel, an amalgam of zinc and sulphur bonded with alcohol, which necessitated a trip into the mountains to buy moonshine. Stinking drunk, the boys got into trouble with the law, not for the first time. They had already been arrested for arson by state troopers after a forest fire on Davy Mountain was attributed to a wayward Auk. The real culprit proved to be an aeronautical flare .
   In September 1959, the newly formed NASA put its Mercury capsule into orbit, in preparation for manned space flight. The following month, Auk XXII-B ricocheted around the West Virginia woods until a hornets' nest halted it in mid-trajectory. It was twilight before the furious swarm dispersed and the boys could come out of hiding and go home.

“WEST Virginians are very proud people, but they tend to be stoic, don't really talk too much, keep their feelings to themselves.”
   Just by writing his book, Homer Hickam has acted in a very un-West Virginian fashion. But in what's left of Coalwood, he's a hero for a second time. The father of one of the Rocket Boys has started showing tourists round the place.
   “For the most part, while the mine was working, people in Coalwood made pretty good money. It was hard work, but they were used to that. They tend to be pretty ornery and against anything anybody else wants to do. They're hill people,” he adds, as if this explains everything.
   This contrary doggedness showed itself in the factions that grew up around the Rocket Boys' venture. Not only did Elsie Hickam implacably face down her husband's opposition, but support came from more unexpected quarters. The machinists at the company workshop would tool and weld Sonny's designs for him. And for all his bluster, and his belief that rocketry was a futile diversion, Sonny's father eventually turned a blind eye to this. Later, he even surreptitiously channelled materials to the boys. Despite a wave of layoffs, and the growing ill-feeling between Homer Sr and the mineworkers' union, many of the miners supported the BCMA, took pride in it, saw it as a chance to put Coalwood on the map, perhaps sensing that the town might soon disappear from maps altogether.
   Other opinions anticipated, in microcosm, the debate over space travel which continues even now: “Ol' Homer's boy got money to build rockets while the rest of town's starvin to death.” In truth, most of the BCMA's supplies were gained through barter or sly arrogation of unused inventory. What money they had came from breaking up abandoned railway tracks for scrap, digging for ginseng root, and Sonny's paper round.
   It was Miss Reilly who suggested that the boys should enter the McDowell County Science Fair. Traditionally, this was dominated by students from the regional hub, Welch; the sons and daughters of bankers, doctors, lawyers. Sonny was unnerved by the prospect, Quentin gripped by it. A scholarship was his only chance of getting to college, and a win at the science fair could make this once unthinkable notion a real possibility.
   The BCMA's rocketry exhibit took the blue ribbon at Welch, and a fortnight later, first prize at the area finals in Bluefield. The space race had roused youngsters all across the country into rocket building, but Sonny's efforts were in a different class. An Air Force major at the Bluefield show presented him with a further certificate - “Outstanding in the Field of Propulsion” - announcing that these were the most advanced rockets he'd seen outside of Cape Canaveral. The BCMA was on its way to the national finals in Indianapolis.
   They won, of course. The story wouldn't be right if they hadn't. Wernher von Braun was there, but Sonny missed him; he was off looking for his hero when von Braun came by to admire his work. They would never meet. Von Braun's reputation has since been tarnished by the revelation of his (admittedly expedient) membership in the SS, and his use of slave labour to build V2 rockets. But even today Homer Hickam is unequivocal in his views on the scientist.
   “The men around me were all World War II veterans, one of the machinists that helped us the most was Jewish, and they didn't seem to hold von Braun's past against him. So why should I? It irritates me that a lot of the same crowd that protested the Vietnam war, and were so self righteous, later decided to attack the German rocket team and call them Nazis. These people came over, this country desperately needed their information and their backgrounds. They were all federal employees, which meant low salaries, long hours. Some of them literally worked themselves to death. We would never have got to the moon without them.”
   The moon loomed as large in Sonny's mind then as it does in Homer Hickam's today. “We can't have you at the National Science Fair looking like a hillbilly,” said his friend Emily Sue. They drove into Welch to buy a suit on the day that John F Kennedy happened to give an early whistle stop campaign speech. Kennedy was a little-known, unfancied presidential candidate, and the people of Welch greeted his rhetoric and nasal Boston accent first with bemusement, then with complete silence. Rattled, he asked for questions. Sonny put his hand up. Kennedy noticed him immediately, perhaps due to Sonny's new outfit, which positively glowed with an evil, lurid orange hue more commonly associated with toxic soft drinks.
   “Yes,” said Kennedy. “The boy in the, um, suit.”
   Sonny told Kennedy he thought the USA should go to the moon.

“I THOUGHT,” says Hickam, “that John Kennedy had absolutely zero point zero zero chance of ever being president of the United States. I'm glad I was wrong. When Kennedy became president, he was looking for some way to counter the Russians' success. Even though I like to think that our little talk had something to do with it, I'm sure it didn't. The moon landing was strictly a Cold War ploy. This was not for the good of all mankind. This was to beat the Russians, pure and simple. Because you will note, as soon as we beat the Russians, we stopped the program.”
   Five months before Kennedy's narrow election victory, on June 4, 1960, the BCMA launched its final rocket before a crowd of thousands. Auk XXXI was seventy-eight inches long, designed to reach a height of five miles (“Quentin and I were altitude junkies.”) It peaked at six. The ignition switch was turned by Homer Sr, on his first and only visit to the range.
   The Rocket Boys all went on to college. Then Sonny volunteered for Vietnam.
   The moon program and the Vietnam war were two sides of the same coin. The same impulse prompted Kennedy to initiate each one. The same beliefs made Homer Hickam want to take part in both.
   “I saw Vietnam in simple terms. It was part of the fight against world domination by the communists. I also saw it as an opportunity for adventure. I mean, I was a young man, and what better way to have adventure than to go off to a war. And anyway, I couldn't get hurt, I was young. Young men never get hurt, they're invincible.
   “And I'm glad I went, because my eyes were opened about a lot of things. I learned not to trust everybody all the time. I learned that our government was quite capable of its own kind of evil, which was an interesting observation. I never had that before.”
   Hickam's aptitude for turmoil quickly got him into trouble. Again, he kept his word to his mother. He didn't blow himself up. But within two weeks of arriving in country, he managed to bomb to smithereens a supply route bridge that the Vietcong, Vietmin and North Vietnamese army had variously tried and failed to destroy for over a decade.
   “My commander told me he was going to see to it that I was never allowed to come into base camp again. What he left unstated was,‘And I hope you get killed while you're out there.’” But Hickam thrived in the field, and was even decorated - for disobeying procedure. He called in air support, without permission, and forestalled an enemy attack; although not before the planes, in best US Air Force tradition, had mistakenly fired on his own men first
   After the war, Hickam's road to NASA was a circuitous one. By the time he got to Huntsville, the space program had been drastically curtailed, and remains so to this day. Unsurprisingly, Hickam feels this is a bad idea. After the success of Rocket Boys, he published a novel, Back To The Moon, in which a retired NASA engineer hijacks a space shuttle and makes a lunar landing. A vicarious fantasy, surely?
   “Very much so. Every time I rewrote a draft of it, I got to go to the moon. It was great fun. I took our cat, Paco.”
   In the film of Rocket Boys, the happy ending, naturally, takes place amid sparks and cheers, a literal blaze of glory. Real happy endings are more mundane. A companionable marriage. An airy house furnished in the somewhat new age Southwestern style (driftwood, handsome chunks of semi-precious rock, dolphin pictures) now popular among well-off Americans. Writing to be done, emails to be sent. A new career built on childhood dreams. A new role championing an ideal in decline these past thirty years.
   “You go look at Coalwood if you want an example. A wonderful place that depended on one industry and one idea, and couldn't think outside the box. We're going to run out of petroleum. We need energy. And how we're going to get that is develop the solar system. That's the choice. We either go into space and we can maintain and better our standard of living. Or we can choose not to do it, we can continue to have fun and games in low earth orbit like we are right now, and I'll flat guarantee you, in 50 years, 100 years, we'll start looking like Coalwood.”
   Coalwood is all but dead now. The seam gave out, and the mining industry was shrinking anyway. If Coalwood is what lies in wait for us, it's unlikely that any number of rockets can surmount it. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't try. Simply - like Homer Hickam - to see if we can.

All material on this site is copyrighted © to David Bennun and may not be reprinted or reused without permission.

Back to Interviews & Profiles
Back to Main Index