Friday, March 17, 2017

Rocket Boys Preface - Chinese Edition

Note: There will be a new Chinese edition of Rocket Boys during 2017. At the request of the publisher, I wrote the preface below to celebrate it. Rocket Boys continues to be one of the most popular memoirs in the world. Its 20th anniversary will be in 2018. It is my hope that the American publisher, Random House, will choose to come out with a special edition and a version of this preface can be included.

Chinese Rocket Boys Cover

Rocket Boys
Preface - Chinese Edition
Homer Hickam

            During the nearly two decades since the first publication of Rocket Boys, many literary honors have come its way which includes its choice by dozens of library and community reading programs across the United States and the world. This reflects the broad appeal and popularity of the work and its ability to connect with nearly everyone at some level. As the author, I have caught some of this reflected glory. I've been offered honorary doctorates, received countless awards, been invited to many towns, cities, and countries to talk about the book, and allowed to continue my writing career with a variety of well-received novels and memoirs. Rocket Boys, however, is the work for which I'm best known and probably will be forever. Something about it transcended even its author and touched the hearts and souls of people everywhere.
            My purpose for writing the book was to create a remembrance that would, at least in a literary sense, bring back to life the town where I was raised. When the idea for the book came to me, my hometown of Coalwood, West Virginia had essentially passed from the scene. Although some of the old houses were still standing, most of its people were gone and its purpose for existing, the coal mine, had closed down. Like many of the young people who had been raised there, this tore my heart to pieces. Coalwood had been a special place filled with a strong and unique people, something we didn't really understand until we had left and then looked back, only to see our hometown mostly destroyed.

Coalwood in the 1950's

            To tell the story of Coalwood and my life there wasn't easy. I like to say, only somewhat facetiously, that I received a million dollars of psychotherapy when I wrote Rocket Boys that I didn't even know I needed. It required me to delve deeply into family problems especially those caused by the long battle between my parents on how they would live their lives. After several false starts, I finally hit upon the best way to tell the story not only of Coalwood but also of the tensions within my family. This was accomplished by recounting my high school years when five of my friends and I got it in our heads to build rockets, an idea extremely unusual in the West Virginia coalfields. As soon as I started to tell the story of our grandiosely titled Big Creek Missile Agency, the words just tumbled out of my head, one atop the other, with an urgency that was astonishing. Coalwood seemed to ignite in the sentences and paragraphs that flowed from my mind. My old town stirred and became alive again and the pain of its passing eased in my heart as I relived an era when boys built rockets and a people ultimately rallied to help them achieve their dreams. It is a great honor that thousands of readers have written to say that after reading my memoir, they feel as if they also grew up in Coalwood. They tell me how much they loved the boys who built the rockets and loved their girlfriends and almost-girlfriends, and loved the teachers and parents and coal miners and preachers who came to life as they read along. In some cases, they've told me that the book actually changed their lives for the better. High praise for a book! These letters are worth much more to me than any royalties received.

            One unexpected result of the memoir was that many of its readers wanted to become part of the aerospace community. Although the memoir contains nothing of my future career with NASA, these readers felt the stirring within our teen-aged hearts to go into space. Of course, unlike the era of the Big Creek Missile Agency, the present movement into space has broadened beyond just the efforts of the United States and Russia. Dozens of countries have ventured into orbit and beyond with both unmanned and manned vehicles. Even private companies have gotten involved with such entities as SpaceX and Blue Origin fielding advanced rockets.
           When I recently visited the SpaceX factory in California, I was astonished and pleased by the number of young engineers who came up to me to tell me that my memoir was the primary reason they had picked their careers. Who would have ever thought a story of some boys in a coal mining town would lead people around the world to head for the stars? Teachers everywhere like the book, too. Science and mathematics teachers use it to teach the importance of their subjects and literature teachers use it because it tells a story with many layers of meaning during a time of change.

The Coalwood Trilogy
            Another happy result of Rocket Boys and the movie based on it titled October Sky was that amateur rocketry, essentially stagnant for years, suddenly became an international obsession. In nearly every country in the world, inspired rocketeers influenced by the book and the film joined rocket clubs and learned the secrets of propulsion just like the boys of Coalwood. When I hear from them, I always remind them of my mother's admonition: Don't blow yourself up!

Four of the six Rocket Boys
L-R Sonny (Homer, Jr.), Quentin, Roy Lee, O'Dell

            A group of readers who've also embraced the book are the many folks who have sadly had trouble with their parents, especially their fathers. In his position of superintendent of the coal mine, my father in the book is a man obsessed with the success and prosperity of the mine, the miners, and the little town. As Coalwood begins to crumble around him, the efforts of his second son and some other boys to seize a different and brighter future is a constant affront. That my father and I would clash is inevitable but how the conflict ultimately resolves is not. That is the surprise of the book, held off until the ending when the true character of both the father and his son are revealed during a special moment. After reading about what happened at the end, one reader wrote and said, "I'm going to tell my father I love him whether he likes it or not!" I have received many such sentiments, all amazing, emotionally powerful, and much appreciated.

            Rocket Boys has so far spawned three sequels, The Coalwood Way, Sky of Stone, and We Are Not Afraid, one prequel, Carrying Albert Home, the movie October Sky, and a Broadway play, Rocket Boys the Musical. It has been quite a ride for this author. Mostly, I feel privileged to tell not only that boy's story but also that of his friends, his family, and his teachers during a time when rockets soared, not just to reach space, but to reach altitudes of hope and joy.

 - Homer Hickam, author Rocket Boys, Carrying Albert Home, & many more

Monday, February 27, 2017

Anousheh Ansari: A Synopsis of her Memoir

The Anousheh Ansari Story

Or how Anousheh Ansari left Iran, fell in love, made a fortune, rode a rocket into space, and discovered what was truly important in life

A Synopsis of the memoir*
My Dream of Stars
Anousheh Ansari and Homer Hickam**

            Call this a love story, though it leads to the gathering of a fortune and on to the far and magnificent reaches of space.  When everything was done and I was set down by silky parachutes beneath the endless milky sky of the high desert of Kazakhstan, I realized it was love all along that had carried me to that glittering island higher than the highest mountains and then brought me back aboard a shooting star.  Love, I understood even as I was carried from my charred, smoking spaceship, is more than an ache of the longing heart.  It is the infinite power of hopes and dreams that transcends everything, even the universal principles of physics. . . What, after all, would the universe and all its trillions of stars and billions of galaxies be without at least the tiniest bit of love?  For that matter, what would we be?  Nothing is my answer.  Just substance without purpose.

            So begins the memoir of Anousheh Ansari, Iranian-American entrepreneur, devoted daughter, loving wife, and the first Iranian in space.  In the male dominated post-revolutionary Iran, the story of her voyage may yet help change her country into one with equality for all.  She is also an international icon who has become an inspiration to everyone aspiring for a better life.  This is her story.

Young Anousheh

In 1966, a pretty curly-haired little girl named Anousheh Raissian was born in fabled Mashhad, a city of parks and mosques in the Iranian highlands. Anousheh means "eternal" in Farsi and she proved to be an eternally bright and energetic little girl.  Her parents, Houshang and Fakhri, were so much in love they were known as the Romeo and Juliet of Mashhad.  But when Anousheh was three years old, her father announced that they were going to leave the quiet and lovely city and move to the busy, teeming capital city of Tehran so he could attend the university.  "But we are so happy here," her mother told him.  He replied, "I have no future in this place.  We are going to Tehran."  In Iranian society, it is the men who make the decisions so Anousheh's mother agreed.

            Although Anousheh was confused about why they were moving, she was cheered when she heard her mother was pregnant.  She looked forward to having a brother or sister to play with!  When the family arrived in Tehran, they were accompanied by Anousheh's beloved grandparents whom Anousheh called her Buhbuh and Maman.  Then, her sister Atousa was born.  The extended family moved into a tiny, crowded apartment.  At first, all went well.  Anousheh loved the excitement of the big city although her mother still longed for Mashhad and her family.  Dreaming of America, her father decided to quit school and go to the USA and build a new life for himself and eventually his family.  While he was gone, Anousheh's mother worked two jobs to support the family and pay for the schooling of her daughters.  Sometimes, when Anousheh came home, she found her mother exhausted and suffering from severe migraine headaches.

            Her father's American dream turned into a nightmare for the family when he returned empty-handed and asked for a divorce.  Soon, it became clear he was involved with another woman.  While her life was unraveling, Anousheh found refuge amongst the stars. Her grandparents let her sleep on their balcony and there, looking into the heavens, she fell in love with the stars and vowed some day to visit them.

            Then came the Iranian revolution.  One night, a mob attacked the bank that was part of the building where Anousheh, her mother, and her sister lived and they had to flee for their lives.  Teen-aged Anousheh was harassed and forced to put on a burkha and hide her face.  She was also told studies in math and science were no longer available for women and she and her sister were forced to go to a different school every year.  One morning, they were attacked by starving dogs as they made their way through a slum to the school. Anousheh's dreams of being a scientist had disappeared into the dust of the revolution.  Her mother made a brave decision.  She decided to take her daughters and run from the despots and make a new life in the United States where she had relatives.

            When she arrived in her new country, Anousheh could not speak English.  Yet, she studied hard, graduated from high school at the top of her class, and then went to college with the help of students loans and scholarships.  She kept going until she had a master's degree in electrical engineering.

            After graduation, Anousheh began work as an engineer with a big telecommunications company.  There, she met and fell in love with Hamid Ansari, a handsome Iranian-American whose family had also escaped from Iran.  Two years after their marriage, Anousheh decided she and Hamid (plus Hamid's brother Amir) should form their own company.  At first, Hamid resisted, saying the time wasn't right, but Anousheh's arguments prevailed.
Anousheh and Hamid
           Anousheh and Hamid cashed in their meager savings, moved to Dallas, and formed Telecom Technologies, Inc (TTI).  Unable to get start-up money, they spent every penny they had, maxed out their credit cards, and asked their family to do the same.  Many times, Hamid and Anousheh had to beg the banks to give them another month, another week, even another day.  Finally, after years of anxiety and near-failure, the company produced a product that was a major success.  Soon, a buyer came and they sold TTI for hundreds of millions of dollars.

One of many cover stories for Anousheh
Now Anousheh looked around for new worlds to conquer.


            "There is a reason we are rich, Hamid," Anousheh told her husband.  "We must use our money to help people, especially women and children, to gain the knowledge and the spirit to succeed."  Hamid agreed and they began to use the bulk of their fortune for their charity work that focused on the rights of women around the world to succeed, education, and assistance to entrepreneurs.  Still, Anousheh never forgot her dream of visiting the stars.  When an opportunity came to sponsor the first private venture into space, she convinced Hamid they should do it.  Brother-in-law Amir also joined in.

            The Ansari X-Prize was the result, a ten million dollar grant to anyone who could build a space ship, pilot it into space, land it safely, and after a few days, do it all over again.  This started a huge competition, won finally by Burt Rutan who built SpaceShip One.  Anousheh and Hamid were there in the California desert on the day the great space shot was taken.  Through her perseverance and support, the spaceflight door was opened at least a little for the people of the world.
            Still, Anousheh recalled that little Iranian girl's dream, to fly amongst the stars.  On the day of the X-Prize flight, she begged Burt Rutan to let her take one of the empty seats.  The gruff Rutan was appalled.  "I would lose my license!" he cried.  Anousheh was undaunted.

Anousheh during celebration for Ansari X-Prize

            When Anousheh heard the Russian Space Agency was willing to fly private citizens into space aboard their Soyuz capsules for a price of twenty million dollars, she wanted to go.  But Hamid thought it was too dangerous.  Also, other Iranian men told him he was a fool to let his wife do such an audacious thing.  In the end, Hamid loved her so much he agreed to fully support her in what seemed her impossible quest.

            Anousheh approached the Russians but they resisted the idea of a woman in their program.  Grudgingly, they finally agreed to let her come to Star City outside Moscow but only to train as a back-up, not to fly. Anousheh worked harder than anyone there and, after initial reluctance, won most of the Russian training team to her side. A couple of weeks into her training, the swim coach sought her out.  "Anousheh, you must try the sauna!"  Anousheh had looked at the sauna and it was a poor, dilapidated thing.  She kept making excuses.  Finally, the coach persisted and Anousheh found herself wearing only a towel in the company of a half-dozen, sweating old Russian men.  They looked at her like she was a space alien but she smiled and sat down.  "How did you like it?" the coach asked afterwards.  "It was . . .  great!" she gamely replied.  Grinning, he made a check on his clipboard.  "I think you should go into space.  You are the bravest woman I have ever known!  Not one NASA astronaut has ever been willing to go into that sauna, not even the men!"

            Although Anousheh had won over most of the trainers, the American astronauts training in Russia snubbed her because they believed she was just a crazy rich woman who wanted a joy ride.  The Russian cosmonauts were also uncertain what to make of this cheerful, energetic woman with the big grin.  Then she met the veteran cosmonaut Mikhail "Misha" Tyurin.  "I think you can be a cosmonaut or anything you want," he told her after they had trained in a space capsule and she had done everything perfectly.  "If it was up to me, we would fly together."  Sadly, it wasn't up to him but the faceless bureaucrats behind the scenes, both Russian and American.

            During a water landing exercise, Anousheh was with a cosmonaut who became seasick inside a bobbing, cramped, very hot Soyuz capsule.  "If they find out I got sick," he told her, "they won't let me fly."  She replies, "Look, we can do this.  I'll tell them it was me who was sick." With Anousheh working extra hard, they accomplished the procedures successfully and the word quickly spread within the cosmonaut ranks:  Anousheh is someone who deserves to go into space.

            Anousheh kept going, persisting through arduous centrifuge training, survival training, and zero-G flights.  Then, three weeks before he was supposed to go into space, a Japanese man in the program fell ill.  Without any other spaceflight participant trained, the Russians had to let Anousheh have his seat.
Cosmonaut Anousheh

            Then it sank in to Anousheh.  There were only three weeks until flight!  No astronaut or cosmonaut had been assigned so late to a spaceflight.  It was outrageous, amazing, and wonderful all at once.  Suddenly, it seemed as if everyone in the world wanted to know everything about her.

            All did not go smoothly.  During an interview, one of her crewmates, American Astronaut Michael "L. A." Lopez-Alegria publicly stated he didn't think she was qualified to go into space.  Luckily, her other crewmate was in her corner: her cosmonaut friend Misha!

            For the next three weeks, Anousheh expected at any time to be kicked off the flight.  She heard American officials were working behind the scenes to have her replaced because they feared she would cause an international incident with Iran.  She also got in trouble when she wanted to have the Iranian flag on her spacesuit.  NASA complained about it and the Russians ordered her to remove it.  This Anousheh did, although she sneaked in some personal shirts with the Iranian and American flags on them.  She was an American and felt no loyalty to the Iranian government but she still loved the Iranian people.  This was her way of honoring them.

            On September 18, 2006, just six days after her 40th birthday, Anousheh went through the uncomfortable pre-flight requirement of having skin samples taken from every part of her body.  She was then put on display like a lab rat in front of a glass window while reporters took snapshots.  But, during all this, a wonderful thing happened.  Her sister and mother came to see her off and then, to her astonishment, there was her father, too.  She was happy her dream had brought her family together to cheer her on and pray for her.  That night, in her room, she looked into the darkness and saw the reflection in her window of that little Iranian girl who once dreamed on a balcony while looking up at the stars.  "Is it worth it?" she demanded of the little girl.  "Is it worth all this just so you can have your dream?"  The little girl replied with a grin as big as the moon and Anousheh knew it was worth it, indeed.

            The next day, atop a Soyuz rocket, essentially an old intercontinental ballistic missile meant to carry nuclear warheads, Anousheh took off with crewmates L. A. and Misha, bound for space and the International Space Station.

            Once in orbit, Anousheh was so happy she cried.  She spotted what appeared to be a diamond floating in the air and realized it was one of her tears.  It floated to the porthole and, in the sunlight, made a beautiful rainbow.  Anousheh unbuckled herself and began to learn to fly around the tiny module.  L. A. watched her antics with a professional astronaut's critical eye.  That night, she slept in a sleeping bag hanging from the ceiling like a bat.  She called it her "Bat Sack" and switched on her iPod.  She was having a ball!
            But the next day, disaster struck, Anousheh fell victim to space sickness, a combination of nausea, vomiting, headache, and horrible back pain.  For two days, she tenaciously fought her way through it.  When the spacecraft docked at the International Space Station, she was recovered and ready to enjoy space.  In spite of himself, L. A. was impressed.

Anousheh flies about the Int'l Space Station

            Very quickly, Anousheh filled the gray interior of the space station with the bright colors of her personality.  Before the bemused eyes of the professional astronauts and cosmonauts on board, she began to fly through the station like a joyful bird.  Gradually, their amusement turned into respect.  After all, she held more patents than anyone on board, had built a successful business based on her engineering expertise, and had funded the X-Prize!

            Anousheh would spend eight days aboard the station.  Finally, L. A. came to her and told her he thought she belonged in space, and that maybe more people like her should come.  "That is my dream," Anousheh replied, "that anyone who wants to can come and live and work up here."

            Whenever she could, Anousheh watched the beautiful Earth turning beneath her.  She dreamed of having the leaders of the world come to share her platform so they could see the world as it really was.  "Here," she told a reporter during an interview, "they would see no borders, just one world, the only world we have.  It must be protected from harm."

            Determined to share her experience, she sent e-mail blogs from orbit to her web site (www.anoushehansari.com).  Her missives were so personal in nature, so unlike anything ever written from space, they began to capture international attention, and quickly built a huge audience.

            By the time Anousheh climbed into a Russian spacecraft to crash back into the atmosphere, more than twenty million hits had thundered into her server from fascinated readers from all over the world, including many from her native Iran.

            Anousheh's triumph continued until it was time to return.  Her capsule struck the atmosphere hard.  She felt like she was riding a shooting star.  When she landed, the world had a new star, indeed.  But Anousheh had landed on Earth in more ways than one.

            She looked from the capsule and was blinded by flashes of light.  Everyone was taking photographs rather than getting her out.  She felt like a trapped, caged animal.  They finally pulled her free, wrapped her in a blanket and carried her to a chair.  Reporters and photographers began to swarm around her like locusts.

Then she heard a familiar voice from behind her.  "Anousheh, I am here!"  It was Hamid.  She was so happy to hear his voice!  She called out to him, “Hamid, please come and hold me.”  It was then she realized what everything she'd done had really meant.  It was love that had made it all possible, her love of the stars, yes, but, more importantly, her love for her husband and family and the people who'd helped her along the way.  Hamid rescued her and took her back to Texas.

Anousheh and Hamid after landing

            Anousheh still lives in Dallas.  She has become an international icon, in demand across the world from people who want to know more about her story.  She speaks to students and teachers to inspire them toward greatness.  She is also building a new company and investing millions in enterprises to give people hope for the future.  Yet, that little Iranian girl within sometimes still makes her presence known.  With a sigh, Anousheh puts down her work and goes outside and looks into the night sky, her eyes wandering amongst the stars, longing to return to a place she now thinks as her other home.

My Dream of Stars (published by Palgrave-McMillan in Spring, 2010)

**  Homer Hickam is the author of the #1 New York Times memoir Rocket Boys (made into the Universal Studios motion picture October Sky) plus many other fine books including his most recent best-seller, Carrying Albert Home (www.homerhickam.com).

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Why do miners mine coal?

Or why mine coal at all?

Coal is a natural resource. It is packed with energy from ages past. When it is burned, that energy is released. Before there was oil or gas or nuclear or solar or geothermal, coal was THE mass driver of energy. Coal created the modern society of today.

Besides its use for energy, coal can be chemically changed into many products including plastics, creosote, napha, a variety of phenols, medicinal components, fertilizer, ammonia, and a thousand others. It is also required to make steel. Every day, nearly everyone in the world is either warmed by coal, use the electricity produced from it, or, without realizing it, is touched in some way by one of its byproducts.

Coal can be found nearly everywhere in the world. It is most abundant in North America and Russia. The reason for that is complex but has to do with the manner in which ancient forests were covered by the debris of the ages.

As cities and manufacturing plants grew during the industrial revolution in the 19th century, energy was desperately needed. Coal was there and whatever it took to get it, that's what was done. A lot of miners died and got sick but a vastly greater number of people were raised up to benefit from the new industrial age. Miners, for the most part, were politically insignificant but, for all practical purposes, built the technical civilization we enjoy today..

Most people outside the mining industry who think about coal mining and miners generally think about it and them in the way it and they were in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with picks and shovels and exploding methane and dead canaries and mules. In the 21st century, coal miners in the United States are much different. However, in the rest of the world, they are only a little better off. Russian and Chinese miners work in an environment similar to 1940's USA.

Modern coal miners in the United States (and here I'm talking about those who go underground which are the minority, most coal being stripped from the surface) essentially work in a computerized underground plant. Their environment is controlled and monitored by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA), a federal agency with much authority and an ability to shut down a mine that doesn't adhere to its safety and health requirements. MSHA has supplanted unions and forced modernization and safety to a remarkable degree on the coal mining industry.

American underground coal mines are marvels in efficiency. To work in them, American coal miners are thoroughly trained. The equipment they use, the computers they operate, the geology they learn, all are astonishingly complex.  They are paid accordingly. Pay for experienced miners is in the $75,000 - $125,000 range and upwards. It should be easy to understand why such trained and experienced people don't want to go into a different profession and start anew.

Coal mining is far from the most dangerous profession in the United States. Logging, fishing, garbage pick-up, truck driving, farming, and construction kill many more workers.  Water sprays and face masks, all required by MSHA, should decrease the amount of black lung in the future.

Most people think of coal as that nasty stuff burned for energy or electricity. In fact, there are different grades of coal. The coal used for making electricity is of a different grade than that which is used to make steel. Sometimes, coal that can be used for steel is burned for energy but not vice versa. Much of the coal in West Virginia is steel-making coal.

The coal business is going to wax and wane. But no matter what happens, the demand for coal miners is going to diminish. Every day, underground mines become more automated. Ten men can do now what hundreds did when I lived in Coalwood, West Virginia, and watched those long lines of miners trudging along the road that led to the coal mine, greeted by their fellows from the shift before them trudging back home. My father and others of his generation began the automation that ultimately would destroy the town he loved and make those long lines of hardy miners a thing of the past.

There is somewhat of a solution, however, for those who want to stay in that beautiful region. West Virginia is the poster child for sending its treasure out of state. If even a small percentage of the riches from coal had been collected for its people over the decades, everyone in the state would be rich and be able to pass it along for future generations. It wasn't. The treasure of West Virginia ended up in New York and Washington and Los Angeles and all the big, rich places. We hope you've enjoyed it.

For now, coal must be mined. It is a valuable resource and the people who do it should be paid accordingly and allowed to work. But, better late than never for West Virginia and all coal mining states, its treasure should not just be shipped out without some sort of mechanism to give back to the people of the region. There's an oil dividend in Alaska. What not a coal dividend? A percentage of every ton of coal mined should be returned to its people so that they might create for themselves a new future, free of welfare, drugs, and everything else of the dependent culture.

To learn a little about modern coal mining and enjoy a crackling good yarn at the same time, may I suggest my novel Red Helmet? You'll like it, I swan. http://homerhickam.com/project/red-helmet/

And there is the truth.