Rocket boys : a memoir

by Homer H. Hickam

Hardcover, 2000

Call number

629.1 HIC



Rockland, MA : Large Print Press, 2000.


Looking back after a distinguished career as an aerospace engineer, Homer H. Hickam tells the story of his childhood in Coalwood, West Virginia.

User reviews

LibraryThing member avidmom
"To get out of here, you've got to show your dad you're smarter than he thinks. I believe you can build a rocket. He doesn't. I want you to show him I'm right and he's wrong. Is that too much to ask?"

I am a big fan of the movie, October Sky and looked forward to reading the book the movie is based on. As much as I was looking forward to reading Rocket Boys I wasn’t expecting it to be the great read that it turned out to be. I was a captive audience from the first paragraph. Written with a refreshing honesty, Homer Hickam Jr. writes his memoirs of his Rocket Boy days in the tiny coal mining town of Coalwood, West Virginia (population 2,000) with an amazing amount of charm and wit that made this one of those rare books that is hard to put down. Rocket Boys is the the true story of a few native sons who decide, against all odds, to do the impossible: excel in the world of science by teaching themselves how to build rockets.

Space captures the imagination of young Homer who witnesses the Russian satellite Sputnik from his back yard one starry October night in 1957. Homer suddenly starts envisioning himself as someone who helps build the U.S. rockets that will successfully go into space. His hero becomes German rocket scientist Dr. Wernher von Braun who comes to America to help in the U.S. space program. Homer’s ultimate goal is to work on Dr. Braun’s team at the newly formed NASA. Sophomore Homer wants to start building rockets but he has no idea how. He finds a way, though, by recruiting one of the smartest kids he knows at Big Creek High School and enlisting his friends in his endeavor. Thus the Rocket Boys and the Big Creek Missile Agency (BCMA) is born. The boys spend weekends together learning everything they need to know to get their rockets to fly and gathering the necessary funds it will take to keep their rockets built, fueled, and ready to launch. With the support of their families, each other, the townspeople and a pretty young science teacher who has unwavering faith in them, the Rocket Boys, slowly but surely, enjoy success and fame in their little town. The Rocket Boys’ rockets become quite literally the launching pad out of the dead-end town of Coalwood and into a better future.

Complete with sibling rivalry, unrequited love, a son desperately looking for his father’s approval, and a small group of boys who dare to dream bigger than their background dictates they should, Rocket Boys is a quintessential American coming of age story. A great story wonderfully written and told. In a word: "Prodigious!"
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LibraryThing member brendajanefrank
I LOVE this book! It takes you back to the days of coal mining in West Virginia, as seen by children an their families. The hardships, adventures, and outcome of the Rocket Boys is a truly inspiratiional story that is so good it's hard to believe that it is true.
LibraryThing member cjolson
I was inspired by reading this book of the power an encouraging teacher has. The determination and resourcefulness of the "Rocket Boys" is amazing. As teachers, we should never, never underestimate our students. They way the whole community came together in the end to help the boys is fantastic. These boys reached for the stars until they could touch them.… (more)
LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
"The mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be kindled." - Plutarch

That could act as a summary to the book. At fourteen-years-old Homer Hickam was an average student with no real ambition in a dying town--and then in 1957 Sputnick swept over the October skies of West Virginia. It inspired him and his friends to start a rocket club, and in learning how to put those rockets in the air he learned physics, chemistry--and even taught himself calculus. But this is about more than rocket science--it's a love letter to his hometown: Coalwood. A company town--a coal mining town that sucked the life out of its inhabitants. But without the folk of that town, there's no way the "rocket boys" would have launched those rockets--and their dreams. Hickam dedicated the book not just to his parents but the town of Coalwood--and by the end I certainly understood why.

I'm a space enthusiast. So I admit this story might have a special resonance for me. On the other hand, a book rarely moves me to tears--and this one did. It's a memoir that reads like a novel--a page-turning, uplifting novel. There was a film based on this book. I've seen it and it's a good film. But this was a great book.
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LibraryThing member bragan
Homer "Sonny" Hickam grew up in a coal mining company town in West Virginia. He was 14 in 1957 when the Soviets launched their first Sputnik satellite. Like many people, he was deeply affected by that event, but unlike most, he immediately become convinced that building rockets was what he wanted to do with his life. He would eventually realize this dream in a career with NASA, but his path to that career started with a small group of boys and series of homemade rockets, which they built with very little knowledge but a lot of willingness to experiment.

I was interested in this book mostly because I was interested in rockets -- well, that, and I remembered liking the movie version -- but there's a lot more to this memoir than rockets. It's also a coming of age story, a memoir about family life with a workaholic father, and a glimpse into a way of life that was already vanishing even then. It's told extremely well, in a novelistic style, with a little touch of nerdiness and a lot of folksy charm. You really don't have to be interested in rockets at all to enjoy it. Although, seriously, how can you not be interested in rockets?
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LibraryThing member BoundTogetherForGood
I love a good true story. The movie, same title, is a favorite of ours too.
LibraryThing member maryanntherese
The true story of the Rocket Boys of Coalwood, West Virginia during the Cold War.
LibraryThing member pinkkrosie
Dear Sonny,
I hope this letter is going to be sent to the correct address because Sonny, I have been looking for a way to write you when you left Coalwood. I don't know if I should call you Sonny or Homer, it has been so long! I hear your name some times on the radio and when ever the television is tuned to the news and I hear something about space or rockets or anything like that, I think of you Sonny. It seems just like yesterday we were studying our math in my house. Now I bet your always building rockets for the government. You must be pretty busy.
I'm still in good ol' West Virginia. My family and I moved from Coalwood because my father got fired from the mine because they couldn't pay him. But it is alright. It is nice to see other parts of the state. Remeber when I asked you if you if you had ever left West Virginia before? Well, I still haven't. I guess I just love my home state too much! But I would still like to explore the country. I promised myself I would visit a different state, maybe Florida. They have got nice beaches down there. How about you Sonny, how have you been? Have you traveled the world on your rockets yet?
So, you and all the other Rocket Boys must be all engineers like you. How are the rest of the gang? I'm sorry I have so many questions, but you are so interesting Sonny.
Please write soon!
Your friend,
Dorothy Plunk

Dear Dorothy,
I can't believe you found my address, I have been moving around a bit, trying to find a good home. No, I have not traveled all around the world yet, but it is on my list of priorities. I have visited a few states though, for the rockets. Remember the science I went to in Indianapolis? That is the kind of things I have been involved with lately. Let me tell you about the Rocket Boys, me, Quentin, Billy, and Sherman became engineers. Roy Lee became a banker and O'Dell went into insurance and farming. But, I don't know if you heard, poor Sherman died of a heart attack.* It was not really expected, so it was a real shock. He always seemed so healthy and athletic, who knows how it happened. May he rest in peace.
Sounds like your doing well Dorothy. Are you married yet? It's okay if you don't want to tell me, I don't want to be poking through your business, unless you want to tell me.
I was glad to hear from you,
Homer Hickam Jr. (Sonny)
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LibraryThing member sivasothi
14-year old Homer Hickam built his own rockets in 1957 and grew up to become a NASA engineer. A vivid picture of a small, vulnerable coal-mining town, of people who nurtured dreams, the significance of hearing the Russian satellite Sputbik, the drive to improve science education in the US.

A lovely account, penned with humour and affection. The movie which was pretty nice, was atually a pale shadow of the book!… (more)
LibraryThing member lalalibrarian
I loved the movie, October Sky, and always meant to read the book. I'm so glad I did! It's a wonderful memoir about some boys growing up in a coal-mining town in the mountains of West Virginia in the 1950s right around the time Sputnik launched. They get rocket fever and with the help of half the town, launch their rockets as high as six miles into the sky! They teach themselves trigonometry and convince the high school to offer calculus so they can fly their rockets higher.… (more)
LibraryThing member Doondeck
A surpisingly interesting story of coal mining and rocket science. Later made into a good movie titled "October Sky" (which is an anagram of "Rocket Boys")
LibraryThing member jschlei101
What an excellent tale! I couldn't wait to see what happened next. They certainly would not have been encouraged to experiment like that today. It was quite eye opening to see just how awful the coal industry could be for the workers and the companies that run the mines. I finally learned what a company town was.
LibraryThing member benuathanasia
An absolutely beautiful memoir, about school, about youth, about the 50's, about unions, about the south, about America, about life. I can't imagine that this book doesn't offer at least something to even the most discerning reader. It has romance, drama, science, teenage angst, and is replete with things going "boom!"
In all seriousness though, this book didn't just touch my soul, it kidnapped it. I have always loved the movie and was even inspired to go to engineering school because of it (I decided I hated math and switched majors later). I didn't expect to like the book as much as the movie, but was pleasantly surprised to find I loved it far more. I hate to be cliche, but I'll confess, I DID laugh, I DID cry, and I don't regret a second of it.
The book delves more deeply into the life of coalminers in the mid-20th century and offers a lot of insight into what life was like for people in the era of my parents' youth. It also has a great deal more in it that the movie lacked.
Without giving anything away, I'd just like to say if you so much as liked the movie, you absolutely must read this book.
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LibraryThing member kjflaherty
I absolutely loved this book and the two that followed in the "Coalwood Series". I was transported to the small coal mining town and connected to the teenagers working to achieve their dreams. FANTASTIC READ! I recommend this book to anyone...even those who normally don't read non-fiction.
LibraryThing member gooutsideandplay
What a joy this book was! I loved the movie, October Sky, but never got around to reading the book it was based on. The story of a teenage boy's love for rockets and space overlays the saga of a struggling West Virginia coal mine town in the late 1950's and early 1960's. I was particularly moved by the boy's success in teaching himself trigonometry and calculus --- obvious evidence that anyone can learn who is self-motivated! Last, great use of the underdog theme -- as a unsophisticated teen (too naive to lock up his precious rockets from his exhibit table at the National Science Fair -- and they are subsequently stolen) ----from West Virginia competing against sophisticated entries from New York. Wonderful themes of determination, pride and the power of a dream to overcome all obstacles. Great story!!!… (more)
LibraryThing member dilaycock
This is one of my favourite read-alouds in Boys & Books. Homer's story combines both humour and tragedy to create an inspirational story. While overseas recently, I visited the Science Museum in London which has quite a bit on Homer's hero - Werner Von Braun (the German scientist who invented the V2 rocket). Having read "Rocket Boys" (or October Sky) made the rocket exhibits so much more interesting.… (more)
LibraryThing member BookJoy17
The movie October Sky was made from this book. Homer Hickam builds rockets, he now works for NASA.
LibraryThing member TooBusyReading
I read this as part of the Pikes Peak Library District's 2009 All Pikes Peak Reads program, having already seen the movie based on it, October Sky. The first paragraph of the book really caught my interest:

Until I began to build and launch rockets, I didn't know my hometown was at war with itself over its children and that my parents were locked in in a kind of bloodless combat over how my brother and I would live our lives. I didn't know that if a girl broke your heart, another girl, virtuous at least in spirit, could mend it on the same night. And I didn't know that the enthalpy decrease in a converging passage could be transformed into jet kinetic energy if a divergent path was added. The other boys discovered their own truths when we built our rockets, but those were mine.

Homer (Sonny) became fascinated by rockets when he first learned of the launching of the first Sputnik by the Russians in 1957. He and his friends formed the BCMA, Big Creek Missile Agency and set off to discover how to build rockets in attempts that would now likely put them in court for theft at best and their parents in court for child endangerment. Things were really different in the 50's, and Homer's mother admonished him mainly to not blow himself up.

It is more than a story about building rockets. It is about life in a coal mining town, Coalwood, where everything is owned by the company. There was little hope for the boys in Coalwood, little chance that they could do anything other than following their fathers into the coalmines, little chance that they would go to college. The outlook was even bleaker for the girls who would most likely be stay-at-home wives trapped in a company town and married to coal miners, hoping they wouldn't lose their husbands in a mining accident and their homes two weeks later when widows had to leave the company housing.

It is also a story about relationships, Homer Sr.'s love of and dedication to the mine, of his stoicism and the rift between his younger son and himself, of his hope for his older boy's potential football career. Of the strained relationship between Homer's parents, between Homer and his brother, of friendships, and of a very special teacher who never let Homer give up his dream. The book is a touching and inspiring memoir of what a boy with dreams can accomplish, against all odds.
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LibraryThing member BookConcierge
Book on CD read by Beau Bridges

Homer Hickam Jr (a/k/a Sonny) grew up in Coalwood, West Virginia – a “company town” in built and owned by the mining company for whom his father worked. The only thing that mattered in that small town was coal and high school football. And Sonny hadn’t much interest in either. Sonny and his friends, fellow misfits, didn’t seem to have much future to look forward to, until their imaginations were ignited by watching the Soviet satellite Sputnik. They began with simple “kitchen experiments,” learned from their failures, improved their rockets and garnered the admiration and support of the town.

In his memoir, Hickam brings the residents of Coalwood to life. He shares stories of growing up, of high school football, a beloved teacher, unlikely allies, young love, and his mother’s determination that her boys would NOT go into that mine. All the “Rocket Boys” went to college, three of them in engineering. The town of Coalwood was eventually abandoned when the mine was closed and allowed to fill with water.

Beau Bridges does an excellent job voicing the audio book. He has great pacing and a delivery that is just perfect for this story.
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LibraryThing member bookswoman
What an amazing story. This is autobiographical and done by an excellent writer. Homer Hadley Hickam, Jr. (nicknamed Sonny) was 15 when the Russians launched Sputnik and it inspired him to his lifes work, working with NASA. This story covers only three years, from the age of 15 and Sputnik to 18 and graduation from High School. Those three years follow Homer and his small group of friends who decide they need to build a rocket. Sonny is the de facto leader, Quinten is the "brains" and the other boys the cheering section, gophers and general support staff. Their first "rocket" sits on the ground and fizzles at them but not to be discouraged they keep working until they achieve flight. After that its a matter of making things better and better.

The best part of this story is not the building of the rockets but the family and community relations that go on around the rocket building. Sonny has strained relations with his father and his older brother and a strong relationship with his mother. It is during this three year period that he realizes that his parents are locked in a battle about what will happen with him, will he stay in West Virginia, following his father into the coal mines, or will he break free and go to college to become an engineer? His father is mine supervisor which adds to the tensions in town because Dad is a "company" man while most of the town is Union. Much of the conflict of the story is between townspeople and the Hickam family's perceived protection of the company - at the expense of the mine workers and their families.

I highly recommend this book and can't wait to get the next three parts of Sonny's story, all written with his deft hand, I hope.

One other note, this book was made into a movie, so if you've ever seen October Sky (an anangram of Rocket Boys), you already know part of the story.
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LibraryThing member MartyBriggs
Wonderful true story of a group of boys who didn't even do well in school, but when they got motivated were able to teach themselves what they needed to make their rockets and win a science fair.
LibraryThing member hailelib
This book was a real page-turner for me and the adventures of the Rocket Boys show a great deal about the way science should be done. There are also numerous details about life in the coal mining towns of West Virginia during the late fifties and into the sixties. Recommended.
LibraryThing member datrappert
An inspiring story of what a group of teenagers can accomplish when they reach for the sky, but also a bittersweet story of a dying way of life and of the distance between family members. Hickam tells his story brilliantly, making everyone who inhabits it come alive in just a few sentences. As the whole town rallies around the "rocket boys", people's true characters are revealed. The book is full of unforgettable vignettes, such as when Homer is rescued from a blizzard by a woman with a connection to him he never would have imagined. Reading this book was a pure pleasure, and I plan to read Hickam's other books about Coalwood, West Virginia as soon as I can.… (more)
LibraryThing member TulsaTV
I recently requested "October Sky" from Netflix, having read that it was set in the late fifties Sputnik era. The movie delivered much more than that, though in a familiar story arc. The epilog revealed it was a true story, written by the protagonist, who was played by a young Jake Gyllenhaal. It warranted ordering the Nook version of the book.

While the movie was faithful to the book, the book shines in its detail and depth. You get the West Virginia company town of Coalwood, its people places and history. You get humor, small town boredom, unfiltered teen angst, family conflict, and life and death incident. You also learn about principles of rocket propulsion.

Mr. Hickam tells it in a pleasing, unvarnished style. An engrossing and moving story.
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LibraryThing member nancynova
Read for the Dewey Decimal challenge on LT. Great book that I listened to on library audio, since I was driving. I loved the way Beau Bridges pronounced Coalwood and the mine with a drawl out drawl. The book focuses on the author's teen years in the late 1950's in a West Virginia mining town, where his father is the superintendent, and his mother just wants to get her sons out of going to work in the mine. When the Russian's launch Sputnik, rocketry captures Sonny & his friends' fancy. With his mother's admonition, as they set off learning the principles of fuel and ignition - "Now don't blow yourselves up!" Of course, the first thing they do is blow up her Rose Garden fence in a launch, and then are chased away to better suited launch pads - the slake of abandoned coal mines nearby.… (more)


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