American author and space engineer Homer Hickam (born 1943) served the U.S. Army in Vietnam and then embarked on a 17-year career with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration before writing Rocket Boys. By capturing the way young Americans became captivated by the new frontier in outer space during the mid-20th century, his first memoir won numerous awards, inspired a feature film and a stage musical, and launched his second career as a memoirist and novelist.
Born on February 19, 1943, in Coalwood, West Virginia, Homer Hadley Hickam, Jr., was the youngest of two sons born to Homer and Elsie (Lavender) Hickam. Coalwood was a mining town, and Homer Sr. worked as a mine engineer and supervisor for the Olga Coal Company. Although most sons of miners followed their fathers into the mines, such was not the case with the Hickams; older son James became a high-school football coach, and younger brother Homer Junior—called “Sonny”—followed an even more unique career path.
Reflecting on his childhood, Hickam recalled growing up reading the stories of Jules Verne, writing in the introduction to his novel Back to the Moon that he was “astonished by his tales, filled not only with great adventures but with scientists and engineers who considered the acquisition of knowledge to be the greatest pursuit of mankind.” He also recalled a specific date, October 5, 1957, as one that established the trajectory of his life. On that date, the Soviet Union (U.S.S.R.) launched its Sputnik satellite, the first artificial satellite to orbit Earth. Hickam was 14 years old, in the tenth grade, and living in a region where most young men found their life work in the coal mines that coursed through the hill country of West Virginia. Imagining Sputnik coursing up into space inspired him to learn everything he could about rockets, and the source of this information was German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, who had written several popular articles and books on space science and the technology that would soon allow men to travel up to the moon.
Together with five friends—O'Dell Carroll, Roy Lee Cooke, Billy Rose, Sherman Siers, and Quentin Wilson—Hickam formed an inventor's club called the Big Creek Missile Agency and built a rocket. After several failed attempts, during which a fence was destroyed, their creations began to take flight, and after one of their rockets traveled a mile into space before sputtering back to earth, the residents of Coalwood joined in to aid their efforts. In 1960, the six teens—now high-school seniors—exhibited their rocket design at the National Science Fair and earned two top awards for its propulsion system.
Rather than following Homer Sr. into the mines, Hickam attended Virginia Polytechnic Institute and continued his rocket research in his free time. He teamed up with several other students to build a cannon out of scrap brass; dubbed Skipper, this cannon became a school icon and was used during Virginia Tech's football games and cadet corps functions until it was “retired” in 1981. Hickam graduated in 1964 with a degree in industrial engineering.
Between 1967 and 1968, Hickam enlisted in the U.S. military and served his country as a first lieutenant in the army's Fourth Infantry Division. Posted in the jungles of South Vietnam, he worked as a combat engineer, living in temporary shelters and keeping the unit's tanks, supply trucks, and armored personnel carriers running. In areas where the North Vietnamese were present, vehicles such as the armored recovery vehicle Hickam drove while traveling to stranded vehicles, were frequent targets of enemy fire. Because of his wartime service, he was awarded an Army Commendation medal and a Bronze Star and resigned from service in 1970 as a captain. He would later work with the U.S. State Department–funded International Institute of Education to help educate Vietnamese students about the United States and its role during the Vietnam War.
In 1971, Hickam began his career as an aerospace engineer at the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command (AMCOM), where he worked as a federal civilian on the Hellfire missile program. While working in both Huntsville, Alabama, and military bases in Germany, his work contributed to AMCOM's mission to maintain the readiness of aviation systems used in U.S. military helicopters, missiles, and other aerial equipment. He also married in 1977, but divorced his first wife nine years later. After leaving AMCOM, he joined the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), hiring on as an aerospace engineer at the Marshall Space Flight Center outside Huntsville, Alabama, in 1981. At NASA, Hickam focused on training astronauts assigned to crew various missions, including Space Shuttle missions to repair the Hubble Space Telescope. He was the Payload Training Manager for the International Space Station Program before he retired in 1998 to pursue his writing career. “I loved it,” he later recalled to interviewer Elizabeth M. Collins for Soldiers Magazine. “Every day I worked for NASA, I woke up in the morning and said, ‘Oh boy, I get to go work for NASA today. How cool is that?’”
Hickam had started writing almost 30 years before, after he returned from Vietnam in 1969. Inspired by his SCUBA diving adventures, a longtime passion, he produced articles that were published in several magazines. His experiences diving and exploring shipwrecks along the Atlantic coast alerted him to the destruction caused by German U-boats (submarines), which trolled the shipping lanes off Cape Hatteras and points south and sunk over 250 ships during World War II. His first book, Torpedo Junction: U-Boat War off America's East Coast, 1942, explores this area of military history and was released in 1989, the same year Hickam's father died.
Around the time Hickam retired from NASA, Delacorte Press published his second book, the 1998 best-seller Rocket Boys: A Memoir. In this book, he shares his memories of his childhood in West Virginia coal country, recounting his relationship with his strong but reticent father, his caring and resilient mother, and the space event that sparked his passion for rockets and joined his friends in their rocket-launching enterprise. The book had its roots in a story he submitted to Smithsonian's Air and Space mag-azine three years earlier, and he developed this tale into a memoir during his final three years at NASA. Now age 55, space engineer Hickam was suddenly a best-selling author.
Featuring themes such as hard work, determination, family loyalty, and the value of community, Rocket Boys resonated with a generation of readers who recalled the excitement over the possibilities presented by space exploration during the late 1950s. Hickam's memoir was translated into eight languages and adapted as a 1999 film, October Sky, as well as a 2011 musical play staged in West Virginia.
Hickam tapped the popularity of Rocket Boys in his next two books, sharing more stories from his growing-up years in West Virginia in The Coalwood Way (2001) and Sky of Stone (2002). Written shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, his book We Are Not Afraid (2002) distilled several lessons from his experiences while growing up in coal country in an inspirational guide that melds his cultural and spiritual foundations with a resilience gained in part during his experiences in Vietnam.
Hickam's first science-fiction novel, Back to the Moon, was published in 1999, but he started writing it years before. During his last years at NASA, he had shared the dismay of several other engineers that the agency's programs were no longer aimed to explore the reaches of space. When a paper written by an engineering colleague at Rockwell International posited that a space shuttle could be modified to orbit the moon and then return to Earth, Hickam's childhood enthusiasms were tapped. In the novel, the space shuttle Columbia is hijacked by a disgruntled NASA astronaut who hopes to save his home planet by discovering an alternative source of fuel on the lunar surface.
After writing Back to the Moon, Hickam continued to delve into science fiction, producing a popular series for teens, “Helium-3.” While his science-based novels allowed him to share his concerns about Earth's future, he also explored its past in the “Josh Thurlow” novel series, set during World War II. Somewhat out of the ordinary, Hickam's Carrying Albert Home: A Somewhat True Story of a Man, His Wife, and Her Alligator (2015) fictionalizes the early relationship between his parents. Widely praised by critics, it gained world-wide popularity after being translated into numerous languages.
Hickam's joint careers as a space engineer and a writer, as well as his service to his country, have netted him military as well as literary awards. Several of his honors have been more unusual. In 1984, his efforts to rescue a group of boaters from drowning in the Tennessee River earned him a Distinguished Service Award from the State of Alabama. In July of 1996, Hickam was asked by the U.S. Olympic Committee to carry the Olympic Torch through the city of Huntsville as it made its way east to the host city, Atlanta, Georgia.
Hickam's passion for scuba diving led him into a second marriage in 1998, this time to Linda Terry. In addition to serving as first editor for his many books, she shares many of his interests, and they divide their time between the Virgin Islands and their home outside Huntsville.
Hickam, Homer, Back to the Moon, Dell, 1999.
Hickam, Homer, The Coalwood Way, Delacorte Press, 2000.
Hickam, Homer, Rocket Boys: A Memoir, Delacorte Press, 1998.
Hickam, Homer, Sky of Stone, Delacorte Press, 2001.
American Enterprise, May 1999, “Eyes on the Skies” (interview), p. 16.
New York Times, October 1, 1998, Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, “How Chasing a Star Structured a Boy's Life,” p. E9.
Smithsonian, March 1999, Bruce Watson, “Rocket Boys,” p. 42.
Soldiers Magazine, January 2012, Elizabeth M. Collins, “From Rocket Boy to Vietnam,” p. 14.
Writer's Digest, December 2000, Katie Struckel, “Remembering with Homer Hickam, Jr.” (interview), pp. 80–82.
Homer Hickam Official Website, http://homerhickam.com/ (January 12, 2018).□