May 25, 2012
Homer Hickam Learns Rocket Science and Escapes the Coal Mines
Today I will tell you of the story of Homer Hickam Jr. Homer, nicknamed Sonny, grew up in the town of Coalwood, West Virginia. In this town, coal mining is the only industry. The mining town mines coal to power a steel mill in Ohio. Since mining is the chief industry and the town is poor, very few people went to college and escaped life underground.
Homer's interest in rockets began when the Russians launched the first man-made satellite to clear the atmosphere of Earth, Sputnik. America panicked after this, prompting schools to update the curriculum to beat the Russians to space. Sonny and his three friends Roy Lee, Sherman, and O'Dell, built a rocket using directions from a magazine. They determined to propel it with a fuel from skyrockets. When they try to launch it in Homer's, the rocket blew up the family fence. Homer's mom, Elsie, wasn't too happy about that.
Homer Hickam Sr., his father, looked down on the idea of rockets because he loved mining and was the superintendent of the mine. He wanted Sonny to become a miner too. However, he secretly helped Sonny with supplies. He supported Sonny's brother Jim more because he was the star of the Big Creek football team.
Because of their continued failure at launching rockets (they kept blowing up instead of launching,) Sonny consulted with the nerd of the class, Quentin, for tips on rockets. Together they created the BCMA, or Big Creek Missile Agency. The group built more rockets that failed, but as Quentin said, "It adds to our body of knowledge." The group decided to use black powder, a mixture of sulfur, charcoal, and saltpeter for propellant.
In order to build rockets, they needed a machinist. Sonny consulted Mr. Bykovski, a company machineer, to help. Mr. Bykovski had a soft spot for Homer, leading him to help. Mr. Bykovski was transferred to a mining position, out of the machine shop, when Sonny's dad became furious with him for using company resources to help build the rockets.
The next problem they faced was land. The BCMA needed a place to launch their rockets, since Homer Sr. would not let them launch on company property. After looking for a place, they found a slack dump and built a blockhouse and a launchpad. However, after one of their launches, the all-famous Big Creek football team tore down the Blockhouse. Then, Tag, an unofficial enforcer to law, made the team rebuild it.
The rocket boys signed up for Chemistry with their teacher Miss Riley, who gave them ideas for new propellants and inspired them. She told them to go to the science fair and, against all odds, win it. This would be hard because Welch High school always beat Big Creek in science. Later, she gave Homer a rocket book with equations and trigonometry that helped them.
Since Mr. Bykovski was gone, Homer had to find new machinists. He consulted with Mr. Leon Ferro and Clinton Caton and others from the mine, who willingly helped.
When the science fair finally came up, Homer went and won the county science fair. In two weeks, the state fair came up and Homer won that too. He was going to the Nationals!
Before the National Science fair, Homer bought a suit for it and while walking around he came across Presidential Candidate John F. Kennedy giving a speech to get people to vote for him for president. No one was really listening until Sonny asked, "What do you think we should do in space? I think we should fly to the moon, and see what it is made of, and then mine it like we mine it here." Other miners said," He is right! West Virginians can mine anything!"
At the National Science fair on the day before the judges would judge, Homer forgot to lock up. All of his rocket items were stolen. Homer called home and asked the machinists to build the stolen items again. This was hard though because the Union was on strike. Mr. Caton could not get into the machine shop until Elsie made Homer Sr. stop the strike. The union fought with him until a big order came from the steel mill. The strike released, and Mr. Caton remade the rocket items and shipped them to Homer. Homer won the National Science fair! Homer went on to work for NASA forwarding the space program, not in the mines.
You can do whatever you want no matter the problems you face. Geoffrey Johnson, age 9
Bibliography: October Sky, a memoir by Homer Hickam Jr. originally published as Rocket Boys