Movie Reviews 401 – October Sky (1999)

My fascination with space and rockets started long ago. I consider myself privileged to have grown up in one of the most exciting eras of space exploration. Born just two years after JFK’s famous declaration in 1961 to land a man on the moon before the end of the decade, I grew up at a time when Mercury, Gemini and early Apollo missions regularly made the nightly news. It was a time when the public at large suddenly joined us science fiction fans in reveling every facet of the ‘Space Race’. Magazines, TV shows, movies, were brimming with men in silvery space suits and blasting away in shiny rockets. And I savored every minute of it, culminating in the remarkable landing on the moon fifty years ago this week.

The space race began with the surprise launch of Sputnik, a basketball sized satellite by the Soviet Union in October of 1957, shocking nations and the world. With the reasoning that it would not be long before those few pounds of beaconing metal would be replaced by nuclear warheads the race for domination in space was on. But while heads of state were immersed in the warfare implications, a large number of the population became fascinated by other aspects formerly relegated to fantasy and science fiction now that there were within reach.

October Sky captures the story of one such boy whose fascination turned into a drive to build rockets. An endeavor requiring solving not only technical challenges, but mocking, ridicule and one particular personal obstacle.

Raised in a West Virginia coal mining town Homer Hickam’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) Sputnik experience ignited his imagination which soon led him to igniting propellants in crude model rockets. The film is based on Homer’s book Rocket Boys (October Sky being an anagram) which recounts his fascination with rockets and with the help of three other boys became successful flyers culminating in eventual triumph winning a national science fair. A large part of the film concentrates on his strained relationship with his father (Chris Cooper) a senior coal miner who doggedly pushes Homer to join him in the mines instead of pursuing what he considers a mere frivolous hobby. One of the few supporters urging Homer on is his science teacher (Laura Dern) who surprisingly must battle even with the school principal who shares Homer’s father’s sentiments.

The drama is punctuated by the downfall of the local coal industry – a fact that Homer’s father refuses to acknowledge – a hardline strike, an accident within the mines that puts Homer in a precarious position as principal earner for the family, a fire in a nearby town that is blamed on one of the boy’s errant rockets and the teacher dealing with health issues. If that weren’t enough they even manage to wrangle in a bit of a love interest for the clueless Homer.

While I’m sure many consider October Sky a great film on its own merits, my interests are even more personal than being a mere space enthusiast. While it may not be apparent to my readers here, I’ve been an avid rocketeer for many years. Certified for High Power (Tripoli Level 2 for those curious), I have hundreds of flights logged with rockets ranging from mere ounces using miniscule Micro-Maxx motors, flying a 15 pound rocket on a 1679.4 Newton-seconds K class motor, and putting a 9 pound rocket over a mile high hitting a speed over 650 Mph (0.86 Mach). And that doesn’t even count the 50 pound replica Gemini Titan we launched as a local rocket club team effort. What the Rocket Boys did all those years ago has become fairly common and supported with the availability of a myriad of kits, parts, support electronics, commercial motor and tons of documentation. But knowing how even with all that every launch remains a challenge with an endless list of things that can go wrong every rocketeer would surely tip their hat to these boys who had to figure it all out on their own and build it all from scratch.

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