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In 1998, retired NASA engineer and McDowell County native Homer Hickam published his boyhood memoir, Rocket Boys. The book recalls the waning days of coal mining in the town of Coalwood, the dawn of space exploration in the late 1950s, and the lofty aspirations of a group of mountain boys. In 1999, Universal Studios released the film October Sky, based on Hickam’s book. The bestselling book and popular movie brought national attention to Coalwood and Hickam’s classmates.

Hickam was born February 19, 1943, in Coalwood, where his father was the mine superintendent. Hickam remembers his youth as two distinct time periods: before October 4, 1957, and after. On that day, Russia launched Sputnik, the first space satellite. Fascinated by the ensuing space race, Hickam and five of his Big Creek High School buddies—Roy Lee Cooke, Willie Rose, Jim O’Dell Carroll, Quentin Wilson, and Sherman Siers— began building rockets themselves.

With encouragement from their high school chemistry teacher, Freida Joy Riley, Hickam and his friends immersed themselves in advanced math and physics. They tested their rockets at an abandoned coal dump, which they named Cape Coalwood. The boys won the county science fair with their exhibit, ‘‘A Study of Amateur Rocketry Techniques,’’ and went on to take top prize at the 1960 National Science Fair.

Hickam graduated from Virginia Tech, served in Vietnam, and worked for the U.S. Army Missile Command in Huntsville, Alabama. From 1981 until his retirement in 1998, he worked for NASA. Hickam’s other books include Torpedo Junction, Back to the Moon, The Coalwood Way, and Sky of Stone, also a Coalwood memoir.

Last Revised on October 29, 2010

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e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia "Rocket Boys." e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia. 29 October 2010. Web. 16 January 2018.

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