October 1957, the USSR launched Sputnik 1, the first human-made object to orbit Earth. The 183 pound satellite, just a winking dot in the sky, terrified Americans, who realized they were behind the Russians scientifically.
As the space race heated up, down on Earth boys were falling for girls and trying to learn who they wanted to be. Homer Hickam, 14 when Sputnik passed overhead, weaves together the atomic age and coming of age in his memoir, Rocket Boys.
Hickam grew up in Coalwood, West Virginia, a town built around a coal mine, where the identical white houses and even the church were owned by the mining company.
In the late 1950's, [the church] came to be presided over by a company employee, Reverend Josiah Lanier, who also happened to be a Methodist. The denomination of the preacher the company hired automatically became ours too. Before we became Methodists, I remember being a Baptist and, once for a year, some kind of Pentecostal. The Pentecostal preacher scared the women, hurling fire and brimstone and warnings of death from the pulpit. When his contract expired, we got Reverend Lanier.
Hickam's father was the mining superintendent, a dedicated, hard-working man, but one who couldn't see very far past their small town and the mine at its heart. He thought his bookish son might make a good clerk for the company, but waved off any talk of sending him to college. Then came Sputnik and American attempts to launch a satellite led by scientist Warner Von Braun. Hickam saw an opportunity. If he could build and launch a rocket on his own, maybe his dad would see he had the potential to follow his dreams.
His first attempt blew up, taking his mother's garden fence with it. But working with a little more than a chemistry textbook and a rocket diagram from Life Magazine--and a lot of trial and error--Hickam and his friends refined their rocket designs and fuel mixtures.
Rocket Boys is, as much as anything, a love note to science, to the joy of learning stuff. Hickam reports on each successive launch attempt, from the materials tried to the equations needed to calculate their altitude. Through the books, he shows his rockets' evolution from crude pipe-bombs to truly amazing things soaring thousands of feet into the air.
And while they figure out the mysteries of jet propulsion, the rocket boys also have to figure out other, more common, mysteries teenage boys face. Rocket building meetings include occasional lessons on how to unhook a bra. When Hickam is partnered with the gorgeous Dorothy Plunk in biology class a couple days after the Sputnik, his yearning for her is tangled with his love of science.
"Are you scared?" she asked me.
"Of the Russians?" I gulped, trying to breathe. The truth was, at that moment Dorothy scared me a lot more than a billion Russians, and I didn't know why.
She gave me a soft little smile, and my heart wobbled off its axis. I could smell her perfume even over the formaldehyde. "No, silly. Cutting open our worm."
Our worm? If it was our worm, couldn't it also be our hearts, our hands, our lips? "Not me!" I assured her, and raised my scalpel, waiting for Mr, Mams to give us the go-ahead. When he did, I made a long cut down the length of the specimen. Dorothy took one look, grabbed her mouth, and lurched for the door, her ponytail flying.
Every teenager is a scientist, dazzled by the world around him, desperate for knowledge. A lot of growing up is trial and error. Occasionally, you blow up the garden fence. But through all their missteps with rockets, with parents, and with girls, the rocket boys stick to their motto, cribbed from Dr. Von Braun, that we learn more from out failures than our successes.