Throughout the summer of 1958, explosions rocked the hills and hollows near Coalwood, West Virginia. The first blasts terrified miners and their families. Had the mine blown up? Were the Russians attacking? But when the echoes died away, folks shrugged and said, "It's just those damn rocket boys!"
The book seems to have the required elements; a noble, inquisitive young kid overcoming hurdles placed in front of him by family, location and education to achieve success, both in the short and long term. Throw in a little danger, teen-age angst, and a sexual coming-of-age subplot, and all the required elements for an engrossing story are there. Despite Hickam's less than stellar prose, the story manages to effectively convey a bittersweet poignancy as the humble coal miner's son journeys to the epitome of technological status: becoming a literal "rocket scientist".
While most of his peers in Coalwood, W.Va., in the late 1950s were enjoying their last years of sunlight before starting work in the mine that was the town's only industry and while most of the girls were enjoying their last few years of not being a miner's wife, Hickam was building rockets. Not bottle rockets, either, but the real things.
As a young high-schooler in 1957, Hickam was fascinated by the early stages of the cold-war space race. Sputnik had just been launched by the Soviet Union, and the U.S. was trying desperately to answer the feat. But in the earliest stages of experimentation, Hickam had about as much success as the pre-NASA American rocketeers were having. While Werner von Braun's early efforts- one jeeringly dubbed "Kaputnik" by the press- often blew up on the pad, Hickam similarly succeeded only destroying his mothers rose garden when an early rocket exploded. Inspired by von Braun, the German scientist who came to be the symbol of America's rocket program, and a story in Life magazine that explained the general principles ( "You put fuel in a tube and a hole at the bottom of it''), he and his friends punched a hole in the base of a flashlight, filled it with cherry bomb powder and stuck it in the fuselage of a model airplane. Then they selected the perfect launch site, and accompanied by the obligatory countdown, sent Hickam's mother's rose garden fence streaking toward the stars. Repeated efforts by both rocket programs were finally rewarded by successes, and soon Hickam and his team of classmates were reaching higher and higher into the sky with their home made rockets. With each launch, Hickam and his partners refine their designs, especially of the crucial rocket nozzle, which directs the rocket exhaust and produces its propulsion.
For Hickam, the day of enlightenment was Oct. 5, 1957. That was the day his...