To Infinity and Beyond: Rocket Boys by Homer H. Hickam, Jr.

What a truly inspiring and personally relatable memoir! Throughout my reading of Rocket Boys, I was constantly reminded of the following quote by author and minister Norman Vincent Peale (which was prominently displayed above the chalkboard of my 7th and 8th grade science classroom):

Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.

Norman Vincent Peale

The perseverance and dedication of the rocket boys is astonishing. They were just a group of six teenagers living in football-crazed rural West Virginia with nothing to do (if you didn’t play football, you didn’t exist). Instead of letting life pass them by and taking the path of least resistance by simply becoming coal miners like most of their peers, the rocket boys funneled their adolescent energy into something inspirational and productive: building rockets. Despite initial mockery from townsfolk, and even their own family, the boys maintained a positive mindset and a strong will to succeed. A little love, support, and encouragement from the people and institutions most prominent in their lives (such as their parents and their school) was all it took for their rockets to travel not hundreds of feet, but ultimately reach an altitude of 31,000 feet (six miles!). Along the way, the rocket boys taught themselves calculus to perfect their rocket designs, relied on trial and error to find the optimal rocket propellant, found their own ingenious ways to fund their rocket science, and navigated the emotional highs and lows of adolescence. It’s a gripping and stunning memoir.

Parents and Teachers

As a parent, I found Rocket Boys quite evocative. Parents and teachers are so highly influential and vitally important to the growth and development of children. Young adults need to receive support from these two sources so life doesn’t end up crushing their dreams, which seems to be happening nowadays. Children have suffered dearly during the coronavirus pandemic, now hitting the pandemic wall as schools struggle to properly educate the youth a whole year after these strange times began. They’re capable of so much more than is possible with the current Zoom/virtual environment. I sincerely hope we don’t end up with a lost generation of dissociated youth.

To all the parents and teachers out there struggling through these times, stay strong. And remember that a little love, support, and encouragement from you goes a long way.

The Young Astronauts

I mentioned that this book is personally relatable because it reminded me of an after-school program I was involved in during elementary school: the Young Astronauts. Established by the White House in 1984, the Young Astronauts sought to promote greater proficiency and interest in STEM fields using outer space as the underlying theme (you can read all about it here). Schools enrolled as Young Astronaut “chapters” and students became Young Astronaut “cadets.” As a child, it was unimaginably cool to be called a cadet and pretend you were working on space projects just like a NASA astronaut! I fondly recall one such project where we were given a list of 20 items we could bring on a trip to outer space, and had to rank them in order of importance. As far as elementary school debates go, it got quite heated! But more importantly, it’s one of the formative lessons I learned in engineering trade-offs. I was saddened to read that the Young Astronauts program disbanded in 2004. As you might guess, I did go on to have a wonderful career in STEM (though not in Homer Hickam’s field aerospace engineering).

New Cold War?

Many of the reviews of this memoir describe its events as nostalgically reminiscent of a lost age: that of the 1950s/1960s and the Space Race between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. I don’t know how much I agree with that criticism, particularly in the current era we live in. The shock and disturbing revelation described in the “Sputnik” chapter of Rocket Boys seems to exactly parallel American reaction to Russian interference in the 2016 Presidential election (you can read the declassified report here). Russia has transitioned away from outer space and toward the digital realm, with notable cyberwarfare, hacking, and misinformation campaigns. The U.S. has responded with cyber attacks on Russia’s power grid (read here). It’s the same story of two superpowers vying for superiority, just in a different arena.

To Infinity and Beyond!

While the Space Shuttle orbiter fleet was retired after nearly 35 years in operation, outer space exploration is far from dormant or unexciting. Check out all the press that the recent NASA Perseverance Rover to Mars has received (see here and here). Even Elon Musk wants to go to Mars – that’s why he founded SpaceX in the first place!

Finishing Rocket Boys reminded me of the NOVA documentary series The Planets, and specifically of the end of the “Saturn” episode, where Carolyn Porco (Imaging Team Leader of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft) says:

To me, [space exploration] represents the best that humanity has to give. It’s us at our finest.

Carolyn Porco

I agree with her, and I’m certain Homer Hickam would too!

Marathon Running and Travel

On a final note, for all you fellow runners, Rocket Boys reminded me of a pretty unique marathon (there’s also a half marathon and 5k) that takes place in Mississippi on the grounds of the NASA Stennis Space Center. It was formerly called the Mississippi Coast Marathon when I ran it back in 2015, but is now called the Stennis Space Center Marathon and is hosted by the Gulf Coast Running Club. You enter and run on the actual grounds of the space center – pretty cool! After you finish, be sure to head over to the Infinity Science Center, which serves as the official visitor center for the Stennis Space Center.

Have you also read Rocket Boys? Were you inspired by Homer Hickam’s memoir? Let me know in the comments below!

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