21 Mar 2007

Recommended Read: Rocket Boys

It’s rare that I get time to read anything for pleasure in college, but during spring break last week I managed to finish an entire book! Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam is a memoir that I’ve been wanting to read for awhile. I saw “October Sky” in the theater; it’s a captivating movie that really brings to life the events of the book. “October Sky” is an anagram of “Rocket Boys,” and I feel confident in saying that it refers to the launch of Sputnik, which occurred in October of 1957. Homer Hickam was inspired to start building rockets as he watched Sputnik cruise through the October sky above his Coalwood, West Virginia home.

The book is phenomenal. The language flows as if Homer were telling you his story out loud; it’s the kind of book you can finish in a day or two. Initially, the boys have no idea how to go about building a rocket. They are only aware of how a rocket should look and how to make an explosive fuel source. Predictably, their first effort is a dud, but through experimentation and many good ideas, and eventually a textbook on missile design, the boys manage to achieve heights of many miles. Throughout the story Homer emphasizes both the joys and setbacks that accompany any scientific endeavor. Some designs work really well, and some explode. But each time, the boys pick up the pieces, analyze what went wrong, and learn from the failure.

In the process, the rocket boys go from simple designs and methods to complex analytical calculations. In a great example of learning for learning’s sake, they teach themselves trigonometry so that they can calculate how high their rockets fly, and calculus so that they can deduce the most efficient dimensions for their nozzle designs. Homer encloses this scientific narrative in a compelling memoir of a family torn apart by a coal-mine which mirrors the tension in the town as a whole.

I recommend Rocket Boys to anyone who has felt the elation that accompanies discovery and wants to be taken back to when space-flight was yet a dream waiting to be achieved.