To see and hear a multimedia presentation about the October Sky Festival festival, click on the Spirit of the Mountains logo under "Media" on the right.
COALWOOD — Five. ... Four. ... Three. ... Two. ... One. ... LAUNCH!
Another miniature rocket pushes its way into the brisk autumn sky, punctuating its erratic flight with an insistent SWIIIIIISH! Dozens of eyes watch the rocket corkscrew into the air before falling to the ground, spent.
With the publication of his book, “Rocket Boys: A Memoir,” in 1998, Homer Hickam put Coalwood, W.Va. on the map. The book portrays the adventures of Hickam and a group of other young coal town boys determined to win a national science fair using homemade rockets.
Now each year, at the beginning of October, town leaders hold the October Sky Festival in honor of Coalwood’s favorite son. About 8,000 people came to the McDowell County town on Oct. 4 for the fifth annual festival, named for the movie adaptation of Hickam’s book.
Many, like Andrea Ward, a high school senior from Harrisonburg, Va., came to meet a hero who began his career much like them.
“I just happened to pick up the movie once,” said Ward, arms piled high with books for Hickam to autograph. “Then I read the books, because people always say books are better than the movie, and then I just got obsessed. I read the first one 10 times.”
Hickam, who went on to become a successful scientist for NASA, is happy to participate in the annual gathering, willingly signing autographs and talking with townspeople, old friends and guests. “The story of the rocket boys is the story of Coalwood,” Hickam told an appreciative crowd at this year’s event. “I just used the rockets as a metaphor for the story of this great little town.”
Meanwhile, hundreds of students from West Virginia and neighboring states were busily assembling and launching model rockets from a field just outside town. “I’ve always wanted to fly a rocket,” 8-year-old Nicholas Osborne, of Eagan, Tenn., said. “Someday I wish that people will be able to find life on another planet and solar system.”
Soon, Osborne’s rocket would streak into the air, spitting a curlicue trail of gray smoke like the others. For Frank Milanese, treasurer of the West Virginia Society of Amateur Rocketry, the enthusiasm of the young rocketeers is encouraging.
“It’s because of people like Homer Hickam and the rocket boys,” Milanese said. “The same zeal that they had is the zeal that you see in the eyes of the kids here. Who from here might be the next Homer Hickam at NASA?”