Homer Hickam, beloved author of Torpedo Junction, Rocket Boys, and more, recently shared all in his interview with our very own Andrew Masi from BookTrib. Hickam served as a First Lieutenant in the Fourth Infantry Division in Vietnam in 1967-1968 where he won the Army Commendation and Bronze Star Medals and eventually left service with the rank of Captain. Over the years, Hickam’s experience helped him craft some of the most thrilling and accurate novels that we could have ever imagined, earning him awards and fame as a novelist. You don’t want to miss this one-on-one interview loaded with history, memoirs, and more.
BookTrib: October 4th was the 60th anniversary of the historic launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik. It was a time of both amazement and fear. What was going through your mind on that day? How did that launch help you fall in love with the space program, science and engineering?
Homer Hickam: I was 14 years old, it was the weekend, and I was most likely thinking about girls, reading books, writing my short stories, practicing the drums for the high school band, and, did I mention, girls. This was the golden age of science fiction. When Sputnik surprised the nation, I was astonished that those books were coming true. Because I was such an avid reader of SF at the time, I was primed to get interested in what was clearly going to be an exciting future.
BookTrib: Your memoir Rocket Boys is about the experience you had as a teenager growing up in a coal mining town in rural West Virginia. In the book you talk about yourself as a teen, the whole experience that you and your friends had surrounding the launch, your experiments with rockets, and how you came about your love for space and engineering. Could you tell me a little more about that? What inspired the memoir?
HH: I don’t think I can possibly tell you more than what was in the book which pretty well covered the topic, except to say that I left out an important part that I later covered in the sequel titled The Coalwood Way. I was at the time immersed in a great sadness I couldn’t quite identify. When the reason for that sadness was revealed to me, I was not surprised. Its effects are, however, a strong thread in the original memoir without its origin or my discovery of it being mentioned quite so overtly.
As for why I wrote Rocket Boys, in 1995 I was not only a NASA engineer but had an important secondary income as a freelance writer of some note. When Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine challenged me to write an article of 1,500 words overnight, an artifact of my boyhood days was sitting on my desk as a paperweight and caught my eye. It was a rocket nozzle built in the machine shops of Coalwood, West Virginia. My dad had saved it for me during all those years and when he died, I got it back. I, therefore, wrote an article about those events, something I hadn’t thought about for years. When it was published shortly afterwards, my phone almost melted down from calls from New York publishers and Hollywood. Was I, they asked, going to write a book about this? Well, I said, I am now!
BookTrib: Do you think the movie October Sky did the book justice? How did the idea of bringing your memoir to the big screen come about?
HH: That’s a complicated topic. Let’s just say books and movies are different art forms and, as a writer of books, I believe the book is always the superior form. As to how the movie came about, it was a unique story with some unique twists that took place during a most unique time. Even Hollywood could figure that out.
BookTrib: The space program has seen its ups and downs over the years. During the ups, we have witnessed incredible things like the first man on the moon back in 1969. The downs have been unforgettable losses such as the Challenger shuttle crew back in 1986. What do you think the future holds for the space program? Will it be a positive one, or a negative one?
HH: I was involved with just about everything that happened in the human space business from 1981 to 1998. In other words, I was on the scene for the Shuttle era and there were, indeed, many ups and downs. I knew most of the Challenger crew, for instance, and was in Japan training the first Japanese astronauts when they were lost. I was summoned back and ended up on the solid rocket motor redesign team before going back to my primary job of training astronauts. I was on the team that trained the Hubble Space Telescope repair crews which was a great effort that ended up tremendously successful. These were great and exciting days and it seems to me with far more ups than downs.
As for the future, it’s going to be great. I believe humans will populate the moon primarily with some on Mars and then eventually we’ll figure out how to go to the stars. It is our destiny.
BookTrib: Back in the late 1950s, the relations between the Soviet Union and the United States was very cool and the tensions between the two superpowers was very high. It seems like we are seeing a repeat of that again in today’s world. From your point of view, do you think that we are on the verge of another Cold War? Do you think that the tensions between the two nations will get worse, or better from here on?
HH: I believe we and the Russians have more in common than most people realize. We will not stay enemies. Eventually, we will be allies because we will have to be. The forces against the Russians are primarily the forces against us. The Russians are a lovely, ingenious people. We could do worse for allies… and have.