Homer Hickam, Jr.
Design Engineer, Retired
When you were a little boy, what did you expect to grow up to be?
By the time I was in the third grade, I knew I wanted to be a writer. I loved to write stories. My third grade teacher, Mrs. Laird, said I would make my living as a writer some day and I believed her! But when I was in the 10th grade, I was so impressed by the new space race that I decided to become an engineer. Eventually, I came back to writing. I guess you could say that I wanted to be a NASA engineer but I had to be a writer.
What subjects did you like best in elementary school?
I loved reading, spelling, and English most of all. I also liked science a lot. I liked arithmetic, too, but I had trouble with it. I read everything I could. I loved the Hardy Boys mysteries and the Bobbsey Twins adventures and even Nancy Drew. I also remember reading Last of the Mohicans when I was in the fourth grade and Huckleberry Finn, too. I loved everything Mark Twain wrote. I also liked science fiction a little. I read mostly the works of Heinlein.
We called the first through the sixth grade teachers in Coalwood the "Great Six." They were not only our teachers but in some cases had even taught our parents. They knew us better than we knew ourselves! The Great Six decided I would be a good writer when I told them so many big stories! To make them happy, I started writing. My first short story was about a boy who helped the Roman warrior Horatio fight a battle against invaders at a bridge. I was eight years old at the time.
What subjects were the most difficult for you in school?
As I mentioned, I had trouble with arithmetic. I guess I just got bored with it. I was good at my multiplication tables and long division but I had trouble concentrating on the problems. My teachers and my fellow students carried me along, giving me extra help when I faltered. When I got in the 10th grade and decided to become an engineer and start building rockets, math became much easier for me. I think it was because I had a reason to learn it.
When did you get interested in science and math?
It was in the 10th grade after I'd seen Sputnik fly over Coalwood. Five other boys and I decided to build our own rockets. That was harder than we realized. We had to learn a lot of things, engineering drawing, strengths of materials, welding, machine work, and lots of math. I had to learn calculus and differential equations when I was having trouble with algebra! Eventually, I taught myself this advanced math by using my dad's self-help books.
Who were the "Rocket Boys" and what did they accomplish?
The Rocket Boys were a group of six teenagers in southern West Virginia who were so excited when the Russians launched Sputnik I in 1957 that they formed a club called the Big Creek Missile Agency to learn how to build rockets. Big Creek was the name of their high school.
The members of the BCMA were Homer "Sonny" Hickam (me), Quentin Wilson, Roy Lee Cooke, O'Dell Carroll, Billy Rose, and Sherman Siers. All of the boys except Quentin were from Coalwood. Quentin was from Bartley, a small coal camp a few miles away. All of our fathers worked in the coalmines and most of us had never traveled outside the state.
Starting with no knowledge of how to build a rocket, we began to try to learn all we could. At first, we failed everything we tried. Gradually, we began to learn and soon we were building rockets that were going over 1,000 feet high. At first, the people of Coalwood opposed what we were doing because we made a lot of noise and smoke but after awhile, most Coalwoodians began to help us. The preacher in town preached a sermon that got us our launch range, which we called Cape Coalwood. Miss Freida Riley, our chemistry and physics teacher got us a book, Principles of Guided Missile Design, and also suggested we enter local science fairs to bring honor to our school and town. After three years of experimentation, we were able to fly a rocket over four miles high. We entered the local science fairs, won them, then went to the 1960 National Science Fair where we won a gold medal. I wrote about the Rocket Boys in my book Rocket Boys: A Memoir and also in a follow-up book titled The Coalwood Way.
These books were adapted into the movie October Sky. October Sky is an anagram of Rocket Boys. Hollywood felt that Rocket Boys would not be a good title for a movie because it sounded like it was about astronauts rather than coal miner's kids.
How did a bunch of boys have the discipline to work together as a team? Did you have adult supervision and direction to pursue your hobby?
Except for Quentin who was not from Coalwood, all the boys in our club had known each other our entire lives. We had started school together in the first grade, gone to church together, been in the boy scouts together, and played together in the mountains. We simply liked each other and when one of us would get interested in something, all would help. I was the one who first got interested in rockets. The others joined in. We had no adult supervision but we had lots of adult help. The coalmine machinists volunteered their time to build our rockets when they started to get really complex and required expert machine work. Explosives experts from the mine made suggestions on our propellants and other mine company employees gave us materials. My dad, the mine superintendent, helped by looking the other way while this was all going on. My mother supplied pots and pans and mixing utensils to make our propellants. Our teachers were supportive, especially Miss Riley, by fighting for us to get special classes and books.
When you wrote the story of your childhood pals and their rockets, did you ever expect that it would become a bestseller and a Hollywood movie?
I thought Rocket Boys might become a best-seller and a movie even while I was writing it because there was already a lot of interest from publishers and Hollywood. This was based on a short article on the Rocket Boys that I had written in Smithsonian's "Air & Space" magazine. What I didn't anticipate was that the book would spawn three sequels and be studied in over 400 schools and translated into eight languages! It was a lot of fun to see Jake Gyllenhaal portray me on the big screen but even more fun was to help out while the movie was being made. I was on set much of the time as a technical advisor. I didn't much like the changes the screenplay writer made to my book but authors rarely do. Hollywood never lets the truth get in the way of their movies. It turned out to be a good movie but I still think it would have been better if it would have used a few more things from the book.
When the Apollo and Soyuz spacecrafts docked in 1975, and the American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts opened their hatches and reached out and shook hands, were you watching?
I didn't get to see Apollo and Soyuz dock or the handshake but I did see it later, of course, on videotape. At the time, I was on a scuba diving expedition in Honduras. But I was glad we were cooperating in space. I was never much afraid of the Russians even when they were our enemy. I was taught, by my parents and teachers, that our country was morally stronger than the Soviet Union and in the end, we'd win the Cold War. The space race to me was, and is, the movement of humanity into the Solar System and has little to do with geopolitics. Naturally, I wanted my country to be the leader in space and I still do. There's no other country in the world that has anywhere near the economic power that we have to fund spaceflight. Unfortunately, we do very little in space compared to what we could do. If we wanted to, we could have bases on the moon and Mars right now. Our political leaders, however, don't want to do that right now. Their priorities are elsewhere including fighting a very important and sadly necessary war against terrorism.
What did you enjoy most about working for NASA?
The best thing about working for NASA was its people. The engineers and scientists I worked with there were outstanding and I learned so much from them. Of course, I also loved working on space missions. I helped design spacecraft, I trained astronauts to work in space, and I traveled around the world to assist space scientists. I decided to retire when I was 55 years old for two reasons: I had 30 years in with the federal government which I felt was long enough and also because my writing career was really taking off. I had to make a choice and I chose writing.
When you were working for NASA, did you have time to write?
Even while I was with NASA, I worked on my writing. I worked after hours and on weekends. I free-lanced to many magazines on a variety of topics and also wrote my first book, Torpedo Junction, a history of the U-boat battles along the American east coast during World War II. I began writing for publication in 1973 and worked hard to hone my writing skills. I studied magazines and wrote articles that I felt would fit. I never failed to place an article that I wrote even though I was at first often rejected. I just stuck with it, something I'd learned how to do in my Rocket Boys days.
While it's true most engineers don't write for publication, it is important that engineers know how to write. Getting your ideas down on paper is the first step to getting funds to accomplish them. As for whether my writing allows me to make a living, yes, very much so. If you added up all that I ever made with the federal government during 30 years, it still wouldn't come close to the pay I get as a writer. But I still wouldn't give anything for my great NASA career. It isn't money that makes me happy. It's doing the work I like to do. Since we don't have children, my wife and I have used the extra money to set up scholarship programs.
As a writer, how did you learn to handle critique of your work especially when you do not agree with the critic?
Poor reviews of my work naturally sting but they represent but one opinion and it doesn't take me more than a minute or two before I've put them behind me. Fortunately, I've never gotten very many poor reviews! As for rejection, that is the writer's lot. When I started out writing for publication, I tried to learn something from each rejection. Ultimately, I began to understand that it was necessary to tailor my articles to the magazines. I read the magazines, noting the style and the emphasis, came up with an idea, wrote a dynamite query letter, and most of the time made a sale.
As an adult, have you had any memorable moments that the young Homer Hickam could never have dreamed would one day happen?
I met astronaut Ed Lu years ago while on one of my wonderful book tours in a Houston bookstore. I recall it was for the Back to the Moon tour and he showed up in a signing line, introduced himself, and we became buds. When he was getting ready to go down to Kazakhstan to be launched aboard a Soyuz to the International Space Station, I sent him an e-mail which just caught him practically as he was going out the door. He e-mailed back and said he'd touch base with me in orbit. I puzzled about that but sure enough, he did! He called me on the phone! Can you imagine that? We talked about his view (glorious), his work (hard but satisfying), his time on-orbit (six months which he said is going entirely too quickly) and dinosaur-hunting (he wants to go). I also allowed him to speak to another species, that being Maxx the cat. Maxx meowed on cue (I tickled her) and Ed was, if not amused, at least bemused. Of course our old kitty-angel Paco was the very first cat to meow in space, way back in 1991, but his meows were taped, not live. When we hung up, I was struck by the thought that little Sonny Hickam the Rocket Boy could have happily died and gone to heaven if he'd had the chance to talk to an astronaut, especially one in orbit! Old Sonny, that being me, felt nearly the same way. Maxx was a bit underwhelmed and promptly went back to sleep.
Did you ever want to fly into space yourself? If you could design a spacecraft to go anywhere, where would you want the mission to go?
My dream was to be like Wernher von Braun, a rocket scientist, not an astronaut. When I first got interested in space, there were no astronauts. Alan Shepard and John Glenn first flew when I was in college. I did not see myself as astronaut material at the time as I have very poor eyesight and, anyway, I knew I would first have to go to Vietnam after college. When I came back from Vietnam, NASA was letting engineers go, not hiring them. I had to go to work so I ended up with the Army Missile Command. I didn't come on board with NASA until 1981 when I was 38 years old. So becoming an astronaut never fit in with my situation.
Would I like to go into space? Absolutely! Space is an interesting place and I'd like to experience it first-hand. I would especially like to go to the moon. I think we should go back to the moon and build an outpost and a laboratory there. There is so much about it we don't know and it's close enough we could go back within a few years. As for designing a spacecraft that could go anywhere, I am very interested in the Jupiter moon Europa and the Saturn moon Titan. There could be life on both those moons.
If you were going to design a rocket to take human beings to Mars, what type of propulsion system would you choose to use and why?
I would choose a nuclear-powered rocket engine to go to Mars. To see why, please see my article at http://www2.ans.org/pubs/magazines/nn/pdfs/2001-7-3.pdf
Can space travel (for humans or robotic spacecraft) be made "safe" or is space travel inherently dangerous?
Space travel is best done rapidly as there are many hazards there including long-term exposure to weightlessness and radiation. These problems won't deter astronauts from going but they do deserve very fast engines to get them through the danger zones. Of course, I'd be happy to go along.
What do you do in your spare time? Do you have any hobbies?
Spare time is hard to come by these days but I do find it. I have been a scuba diver for many years and continue to dive, usually near our winter home in the Virgin Islands. I also run 5-6 miles a day to stay in shape. But my latest passion is hunting dinosaurs! For the past five years, I have spent a portion of my summers in Montana working with the famous Dr. Jack Horner, the paleontologist who consulted on all the Jurassic Park movies. I've gotten to be pretty good at identifying dinosaur bones and this year even found the toe bone of a Tyrannosaurus-Rex. To see a picture of that bone, go to http://www.homerhickam.com/newsletter6.htm and you will see my summer newsletter with a photograph of me holding a piece of a T-Rex!
What words of encouragement do you have for the children reading this interview if they dream about goals which are seemingly out of reach for them?
The most important thing to do is to first figure out what it is you want to do in life. What is your passion? Then, apply what I call the three P's of success: Passion, planning, and perseverance. I explain these in detail in my book We Are Not Afraid. I think that there's nothing a person can't do if they are willing to stand up and let the world know they want to do it. After that, the next step is to put together a plan (with the help of parents, teachers, and friends), and then stick to it until it happens!
Do you have a favorite quote that inspires you?
I like what O'Dell said when we would get ready to launch our rockets:
"A rocket won't fly unless somebody lights the fuse!"
Although he was talking about a rocket, it's good advice for accomplishing anything. You've got to light that fuse and get on with it!
- 10 September 2003
Editor's Note: Rocket
Boys is available in English, Dutch, German, Spanish,
Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Italian. For Spanish:
12 September 2003
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