Launching dreams: an uplifting memoir by a rocket boy
"I guess it's fair to say that there were two distinct phases to my life in West Virginia," writes Homer H. Hickam, Jr., in Rocket Boys: A Memoir. "Everything that happened before October 5, 1957 and everything that happened afterward." As it happens, Mr. Hickam's pivotal moment was shared by millions across the globe; the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik 1 marked the dawn of the Space Age and sent spasms of disbelief and national self-doubt rippling across the United States. The author's father flatly dismissed the prospect of Russian technology sailing over Coalwood, West Virginia. "President Eisenhower would never allow such a thing," declared the senior Hickam.
The satellite cast a long shadow over the mining town where Homer and Elsie Hickam were raising Homer Jr. and older brother Jim -- mostly in the form of a challenge to American youth to redouble its efforts in mathematics and the sciences. The darkness and tension of the Cold War lent an almost supernatural quality to the feats of rocketry and spaceflight. Four decades later, Hickam remembers, "They [the Soviets] were so walled off to us . . . when you don't know someone and they're a mystery to you, you tend sometimes to ascribe superhuman qualities to them."
That fall, the Hickams were getting almost all of their news from Life and Newsweek. The magazines arrived on Wednesdays -- and persuaded all that the "Red Moon" was a reality. The author had just turned 14 and liked "Pepsi and Moon Pies." He also really liked biology classmate Dorothy Plunk.
A love of reading -- particularly science fiction -- and some success at writing short stories distinguished the boy, but those qualities were largely lost on a father obsessed with his responsibilities as Coalwood's mine superintendent. The fact that "Sonny" seemed ill-suited for a life in and around mining created a painful gulf between the father and his namesake.
As Sputnik augured an era that would pass the mines by, it also inspired the youngest Hickam to begin experimenting with rocket propellants and designs according to models seen in Life. He banded together a group of close friends and formed the Big Creek Missile Agency. As time passed, they would become known, in town and throughout the county, simply as the "rocket boys."
After early mishaps (including the launch of his mother's rose-garden fence), the rockets began to soar. With better propellants and more sophisticated designs, the Auk series (named after a bird that cannot fly) began reaching heights of a mile and beyond. Auk XXXI, the final flight, would reach an altitude of more than six miles. Its design was the product of painstaking empiricism coupled with hard-won skills in chemistry, calculus, and engineering. For their work, the miners' sons had won the Gold and Silver medal at the National Science Fair. Then, in the spring of 1960, hundreds gathered at "Cape Coalwood" for the final launch. Among them, for the first and only time, was Homer Sr. He flipped the switch to fire the rocket, and in one shining moment the door was closed on the tensions and confusion which had surrounded the two. Sonny Hickam had finally been given permission to be something other than a mine engineer.
There was another fine moment in that spring of 1960. Junior Senator John Kennedy from Massachusetts came through the county en route to the Democratic nomination. Sonny made it his business to let the candidate know that the United States should go to the moon. Kennedy seemed to take the idea more seriously than the well-wishers gathered that day. It's an astonishing image, and Hickam plays it beautifully, deadpanning, "well, I really think that Wernher von Braun had more to do with it than I did, but . . . "
Next came four years at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. After graduating in 1964, his rockets took him not to Cape Canaveral and NASA's triumphs, but to the dark side of the 1960s: service in Vietnam. "I volunteered to go over there. I felt I should go, and I had an ulterior motive: I wanted the experience. I was young and invulnerable, and the war was something I wanted to taste -- a crucible to pass through. Once there, it took me about 48 hours to figure out 'I don't really want to die over here.' I didn't see much that was worth my life or the lives of my men . . ." Hickam finished his tour with a Bronze Star and the Army Commendation Medal and remained with the service as an engineer until 1981.
More than two decades after Sputnik, Hickam was living his boyhood dream. At NASA Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, he began training astronauts for orbit. He worked on many Space Shuttle missions, including the delicate rescue of the Hubble Space Telescope, before leaving the agency earlier this year. The time has been spent establishing an aerospace consultancy and concentrating further on his writing.
"I don't look for inspiration. If I did, I'd probably never sit down in front of the word processor. The first thing to do is to go ahead and write and not worry too much about the style and format or anything like that. Get the story down and then go back -- what I really love is to go back and re-write. I've made the mistake of faxing stuff when it was hot off the typewriter, and I've always regretted that. Every time."
Well, perhaps not every time. Rocket Boys the book began in 1994 when Hickam received a desperate call from an editor at Smithsonian Air and Space. A few hours and 2,000 words later, Hickam had submitted what amounted to the germ of a book. The hitch: he had to track down 14-year-old Sonny Hickam, his compatriots, supporters -- and his father. The intervening years had pulled survivors away as it banished them to the edges of his memory. "Finding the boy's voice was the real challenge," he says. "It was only when I started writing the book that it really came back to me -- how I felt in those days before that last launch at Cape Coalwood . . . I'd have to say that in the intervening years I did not have any issues with Dad, and I don't think he had any with me. I was quite contented about our relationship. In trying to find the boy's voice, I had to bring the issue back up and worry it over."
With Rocket Boys in print and a Universal Studios film due shortly, Life magazine has again been arriving at his house -- this time for photo shoots.
Meanwhile, as NASA struggles to regain the momentum of its early years, Homer Hickam is "disappointed, but not surprised" by the agency's focus on Earth orbit at the expense of the moon. "When I spoke to Kennedy, I thought we should go, and I still think we should go." The author has given himself a productive way to "worry it over." Next up: a "techno-thriller" called Back to the Moon.
Christopher Lawrence is a freelance writer based in New York City.