Deep into the highest hills of the Cumberland Mountains in lower West Virginia sits an unincorporated town named Coalwood. Appropriately named, this small rural community previously reigned as a prominent coal town in the mid-20th century. Still, despite the many homes once lit and industries once strengthened due to the town’s primary export, Coalwood’s greatest treasure is found in one of its former residents: Homer “Sonny” Hickam Jr – the small-town boy turned NASA rocket scientist.
Hickam Jr. grew up in this close-knit coal community in McDowell County during the 1940s and 50s, just as the coal industry powered over the economy. Hickam’s dad, Homer Sr., was a mining engineer and superintendent of the Coalwood Mine for decades. Hickam Jr., though, knew he would never end up in the mines.
“I just wasn’t really built for [coal mining],” said Hickam Jr. “I didn’t really ever think that I was gonna make it as a coal miner. But what I was going to do with my life, I really didn’t know yet.”
In his youth, Hickam Jr. became overly fascinated in the idea of rocket science, particularly after Sputnik was first launched into space. He gathered fellow science intellectuals from his high school, Big Creek, forming the famous “Rocket Boys," composed of Hickam Jr. himself, Roy Lee Cooke, Sherman Siers, Willie “Billy” Rose, Quentin Wilson, and Jimmy “O’Dell” Carroll. Together, they went straight to work, crafting the best amateur rocket propulsion Coalwood had ever seen. The group’s efforts to make their dream a reality landed them gold at The National Science Fair in 1960.
Hickam Jr. was – and is – a dreamer. He is the living tale of a true hero from an unlikely, almost unlucky place. Against all odds, he and his Rocket Boys pursued a dream far beyond the realm of plausibility for the 1950s, and they succeeded. They soared in their ventures just as their earliest rockets did. These men are the subject of the 1999 biographical film “October Sky,” based on Hickam Jr.’s 1998 memoir originally titled “Rocket Boys.” The movie received raving reviews from critics, with many calling it an inspiring, sincere coming-of-age tale.
A striking difference between the book and the movie lies in the fact that “October Sky” consolidated multiple real-life Rocket Boys into just four characters. Despite this distinction and other minor changes, Hickam Jr. praises it for encouraging young people to fight to make their dreams a reality.
“What it showed most was the friendship between these boys,” said Hickam Jr.
“Rocket Boys” is the first of a four-part memoir series detailing Hickam Jr.’s life stories, influences and memories. The last two books of the series narrate Hickam Jr.’s life after his amateur rocket success and generated the rise of his extensive literary career. He would spend years writing fictional novels and series set in various locations across the United States and beyond.
In 2021, he published a sequel to “Rocket Boys” titled “Don’t Blow Yourself Up: The Further Adventures and Travails of the Rocket Boy of October Sky,” which detailed his career in college and the workforce. He notes that one of his greatest successes was finally joining NASA at the age of 38, where he assisted in training the first Japanese astronauts.
“Naturally, I am [most] proud of the success of ‘Rocket Boys,’” said Hickam Jr. “It is still a best-seller out there that got made into a popular film that could have been awful but turned out to be pretty good.”
All six Rocket Boys went on to graduate from both high school and college in the aftermath of their astronomy ventures. Siers, however, died after suffering a heart attack in his early 30s. Wilson, who Hickam Jr. describes as “the prototypical nerd of all time,” graduated from Marshall University and went on to work as an engineer in the oil industry in Texas. Wilson died at the age of 76 in 2019.
Cooke attended both Concord College and the University of Maryland before beginning his careers in banking and automobile dealership. Carroll joined the Air Force before entering the farming and insurance businesses. Rose also became an engineer and now resides in Bluefield, Virginia. Today, Hickam Jr. stays in contact most with Cooke, having seen him most recently in July.
In the later years of Hickam Jr.’s adult life, he frequented Coalwood while his parents still resided within the shrinking community. His mother eventually relocated to Myrtle Beach and his father retired after a coal worker’s pneumoconiosis, black lung disease, diagnosis. Hickam Jr. halted his frequent visitations just as Coalwood began to decline.
Nowadays, the Rocket Boys/October Sky Festival is hosted annually in lower West Virginia, bringing Hickam Jr. back home at least once a year. He may have moved out of Coalwood decades ago, but his love for the region never moved away. He claims that Appalachia is still filled with some of the friendliest people he has ever known.
“The vast majority of people that live in these areas are very kind people and look after each other,” said Hickam Jr. “But the tendency is to think that [Appalachians] are uneducated, which is not true.”
Today, much of Coalwood sits abandoned and overgrown; most structures have long been emptied and left to stand in desolation. Still, the everlasting impact of Homer Hickam Jr. and the Rocket Boys of Coalwood stretches for many miles in all directions. You can almost – just almost – hear the rockets flare into the cold, autumn sky once more.