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Homer Hickam Jr.

by Hye Sim from San Diego

Homer Hickam Jr. today ( ())
Homer Hickam Jr. today ( ())

Winston Churchill once said: "Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm" (Winston Churchill). These words capture the true essence of Homer Hickam Jr. and his undying enthusiasm to grab his dreams. Homer Hickam Jr. was born on February 19, 1943, in a small coal mining town called Coalwood, in West Virginia. He held a sunny disposition, and his mother and everyone who knew him called him Sonny. His parents, Homer Hadley Hickam Sr. and Elsie Lavender Hickam, often disagreed over Hickam's future because he lacked talent in subjects his father considered important. Hickam's father rarely took notice of his second son, and believed the only future available remained in the coalmines most men eventually entered for jobs. Nevertheless, Hickam buried this thought behind him and surged forward in pursuing his personal dreams in rocket engineering. On the night of October 5, 1957, Hickam heard of Sputnik, the first rocket to enter space, and eventually watched it travel across the sky. The night he observed Sputnik, Hickam made a resolution: he would build a rocket. Upon announcing his newfound interest, Hickam's family supplied little to no support or belief he could accomplish such a feat. Yet he strode forward, regardless of the lack of approval others gave and the number of failures accumulated from his experiments. Hickam's curiosity and enthusiasm to succeed brought him far, but his unwavering personality and optimism towards accomplishing what he desired pulled him furthest. With an enthusiastic and optimistic look towards his dream, Homer Hickam Jr. persevered and grew into an extraordinary man from ordinary surroundings. Despite the lack of support others had for his dreams, Hickam became a hero by attempting to succeed in a situation where not many considered taking risks. With all of his enthusiasm, Hickam encouraged the growth of his flower of success. It began with a single seed of imagination and grew into the accomplishment he desired because of his careful nurturing. Hickam's fierce determination, optimism, and perseverance allowed him to tackle any obstacle and succeed in accomplishing his dreams, nurturing the success he never experienced before.           

Homer Hickam Jr., school picture 1958-1959 ( ())
Homer Hickam Jr., school picture 1958-1959 ( ())

            Because of his unwillingness to accept failure and his pure determination, Hickam gradually edged toward his dream during his pursuit of success. When starting his experiments to gather data, Hickam felt embarrassed that his experiments might end in failure. With some support from a fellow Rocket Boy, Hickam became determined to succeed. Hickam recalled his colleague's words and his own thoughts about the launch: "What he was saying was that we had to start somewhere, either succeed or fail, and then build what we knew as we went along. It seemed to me, considering all the rockets that I read about blowing up down at Cape Canaveral, that was the way Wernher von Braun and the other rocket scientists did their work too" (Hickam 83-84). Hickam faced two futures. He could have deserted his dream and accepted his future in a small coal mining town, or he could take the first step in accomplishing his dream. Anxious about failing, Hickam considered his options and knew he just needed to start. He chose the more unpredictable future that allowed him to move forward in his hopes to escape Coalwood. A key step to moving forward in his rocket launches was enrolling in a Calculus class. After asking his principal why his school did not provide one, the principal stated: "'Because'...'this is Big Creek High School. Maybe if this was Welch High, the county superintendent would approve such a class, but not here. We're a football and a coal miner's school, and that's all we've ever been" (Hickam 257). No one expected much from a child of a coal mining family, but Hickam wanted to prove otherwise. Hickam fought greatly with the school and brought a small Calculus class into Big Creek High School's curriculum he was unfortunately unable to join. Not to be hindered by any obstacles, Hickam taught himself calculus. Despite his struggles in mathematics, he made his own progress by taking the initiative to do what he wanted. From launching and building rockets, to teaching himself the necessary curriculum, Hickam's fierce determination kept him thirsting for success. 

Hickam, on left, with other Rocket Boys and rocket ( ())
Hickam, on left, with other Rocket Boys and rocket ( ())

            Although others believed Hickam would fail before beginning, his own dream of creating and launching rockets kept him moving forward and he planted all of his optimism in that dream, hoping he would eventually reach it. Hickam was not disheartened by the start of his pursuit, or by the numerous failed attempts acquired from moving forward. When prompted about the beginning of the Rocket Boys in an interview, Hickam replied: "Starting with no knowledge of how to build a rocket, we began to try to learn all we could.  At first, we failed everything we tried.  Gradually, we began to learn and soon we were building rockets that were going over 1,000 feet high" (Imagiverse). Hickam began amateur rocket building with the sporadic thought that one day; he would work alongside his hero, Wernher von Braun, the man who helped launch Sputnik. Hickam's first step catalyzed his optimism to grab the success awaiting him. He hoped for a future outside of Coalwood; he wanted a freedom brought by rocket engineering. Although Hickam knew nothing about rockets, his optimism in reaching success propelled him forward and strengthened his effort. Hickam spent many of his days remaking plans and restudying his failures. He turned these tedious tasks into a hope that he would create a rocket capable of flight. After small test runs, Hickam created his first true rocket and explained that: "I named it Auk I, after the great auk, an extinct bird that couldn't fly... I had a purpose in the name. I wanted to make it clear to the other boys that we were adding to our body of knowledge even if all this rocket did was spew on its launchpad" (Hickam 104). Hickam realized how low the chances of success were and named all the rockets flown during this time after the Auk; a bird that cannot fly. Optimism was Hickam's mental rocket; it built him a sensation of never failing as long as he moved forward. It kept him anchored to his path towards success and allowed him to continuously rise from defeat. He shielded the others from the discouraging thought of failure and urged them to continue. His optimistic views provided a fountain of youth that kept his dreams fresh and new each day that passed. Hickam's optimism helped drive him forward as he strived for a success far out of his reach. () ()

Hickam continuously persevered for accomplishment, attempting to satisfy an urge in him to achieve the success he never knew was possible before. Looked down on by the majority of the Coalwood people, Hickam and his rocket club bore past their troubles to succeed in their goal. Describing the scorn they met, it was written: "The rocket club suffered the jeers of the townspeople and the taunting of Hickam's older brother Jim and his gang of friends" (Gale Biography in Context). Although Hickam faced the disapproval of his entire town, he persevered to surpass his own expectations and continue furthering his knowledge in rocket engineering. His persistence in his attempts and efforts to gain success forced him to suffer through many embarrassing and disappointing obstacles throughout his journey. These disappointments were Hickam's footholds to climb to the top of everything he worked hard to become. Despite his unsupportive circumstances, Hickam lead his rocket club to success when one of their rockets flew past a mile. It was one of the most exciting moments for Hickam, as it became the turning point in other peoples' support for the Rocket Boys. When recapping the moment where his perseverance paid off, Hickam states: "'Five thousand seven hundred and seventy-six feet!'...We had done it! We had broken the mile barrier!" (Hickam 326). Burdened by the numerous difficulties of his personal life and his rockets, Hickam kept a strong-willed mind to help push him further towards his goal. Hickam launched his rockets with his perseverance and they flew to heights others aspired to reach. By breaking the mile barrier, Hickam proved to others and himself his interest in rockets was not a mere child's game everyone could attempt. Hickam accomplished his success with his undying perseverance in rocket engineering. Hickam's perseverance shone in his ceaseless efforts to launch rockets that often miserably failed but managed to surpass everyone's beliefs in the end. 

            Homer Hickam Jr. displays true heroism by refusing to let impediments hinder his path towards success. Hickam fought for what he desired. Refusing to be brought down by others, Hickam looked at the world with a bright curiosity and sunny optimism. He stood up for what he loved and took the chances people feared to take. Hickam stamped his own mark on the world, rising again and again after every failure. While all the influences and people surrounding him meandered through the coal, his heart and soul wandered the skies and the infinite mysteries beyond. Hickam grew up in a town where predestined fates drove people to the coalmines. Although this fate influenced them, Hickam craved something better. He molded his own future, not something predesigned for him. He took the initiative everyone else ignored and believed impossible. He took the first step. One of the Rocket Boys who worked with Hickam once stated before a launch: "A rocket won't fly unless somebody lights the fuse!" (Imagiverse). Hickam took these words to heart and mentioned this quote in high regards. "Although he (the Rocket Boy) was talking about a rocket, it's good advice for accomplishing anything. You've got to light that fuse and get on with it!" (Imagiverse). These words unified the eternal message Hickam set as a normal man who created something legendary. I regard Homer Hickam Jr. as my personal hero because of his determined outlook on life. He began an ordinary, pedestrian life, but his rocket engineering brought him to a new world. Heroes are people who have accomplished great things in difficult or troubled situations. Hickam is a hero among the common man; he is one of the many everyday heroes that people neglect to mention. A hero: someone to be admired, someone to provide help, someone to be a role model. People seek heroes with their individual criteria set in mind. I see Hickam as a true hero for making a bold statement, and immortalizing the idea that anything can be accomplished with enough motivation. Winston Churchill once said: "Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm" (Winston Churchill). Hickam resolved to have enthusiasm regardless of the obstacles to come. In an optimistic environment with Hickam's determination and perseverance to make it bloom, his success blossomed into a beautiful treasure. Hickam's efforts brought the beauty of success to the black dust of the coal mines that gathered everywhere in Coalwood, establishing a message to the ordinary man that anything was possible. His endless enthusiasm to succeed no matter what the circumstances were allowed Hickam not only to nurture his success, but also pass the message to others, so that they can begin planting their own beautiful successes.


Works Cited

Hickam, Homer H. October Sky: A Memoir. New York: Island, 1999. Print.

"Homer Hadley Hickam, Jr." Gale Biography in Context. Detroit: Gale, 1999. Gale Biography In Context. Web. 21 Mar. 2012.

"Homer Hickam, Jr." Imagiverse. 10 Sept. 2003. Web. 22 Mar. 2012. .

"Winston Churchill." Contemporary Heroes and Heroines. Vol. 2. Gale, 1992. Gale Biography In Context. Web. 12 Apr. 2012.


Page created on 4/20/2012 12:00:00 AM

Last edited 4/20/2012 12:00:00 AM

Related Links

Homer Hickam Official Website
Homer Hickam's Blog - Thoughts From Homer Hickam at Skyridge
Imagiverse - An Interview with... Homer Hickam Jr.