NOTE: I was asked by an Iranian engineering student to please answer some questions for a magazine at his university. I agreed. The Iranian people are, in my opinion, pretty wonderful. I was happy to answer his questions and hope that the future of Iran will find it once more a free and open society.
- Homer Hickam
Dear Mr. Hickam, this written interview’s aim is to know you better and
introduce you to our university as a successful writer and engineer,
working in NASA.We would appreciate your consideration over these questions.
Could you introduce yourself , please? (I know there are many
introductions of you in Wikipedia and other websites, but I want to know
how you introduce yourself.)
**** I am Homer Hickam, the author of many best-selling books, both
fiction and non-fiction. This includes My Dream of Stars, the memoir of
Anousheh Ansari. I was raised in the small coal mining town of Coalwood,
West Virginia in the heart of the Appalachian mountains. My father,
grandfather, and great grandfather on both sides of the family were coal
miners. My ancestors first came to North America in the early 1700's so
we've been here for a long time. By DNA, I am English, Irish, German,
Danish, Spanish, and even a little bit African American. I graduated
from Virginia Tech with a degree in Industrial Engineering in 1964,
served in the army during the Vietnam War, worked for the Army Missile
Command in Alabama, the 7th Army Training Command in Germany, and then
for NASA at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. I
am best known for my memoir Rocket Boys that was made into the movie
October Sky. I am also an avid amateur paleontologist with two T.rexes to
my credit, a scuba instructor, and own homes and property in the U.S.
Virgin Islands and Honduras. I spend most of my time at our home in
Alabama. I am the chairman of the board of the Space and Rocket Center
where Space Camp is located. I am 76 years old. I am married but have no
children. Our volunteer work includes working for organizations that
take care of cats and dogs needing adoption.
Lets start asking you about your masterpiece "Rocket Boys" . when did
you begin writing it and what did encourage you to write?
* I think the answer is : "When Smithsonian Air & Space Magazine
challenged me to write an article of 1,500 words overnight, an artifact
of my boyhood days was sitting on my desk as a paperweight and caught my
eye. It was a rocket nozzle built in the machine shops of Coalwood, West
Virginia. My dad had saved it for me during all those years and when he
died, I got it back. I, therefore, wrote an article about those events,
something I hadn’t thought about for years. When it was published
shortly afterwards, my phone almost melted down from calls from New York
publishers and Hollywood. Was I, they asked, going to write a book about
this? Well, I said, I am now!"
**** That answer is a good summation. However, I had already written
another well-received book in 1989 titled Torpedo Junction, the true
story of the battle against the German U-boats along the American coasts
during World War II so I was already well known to book publishers. That
made it easier to get Rocket Boys published.
I read somewhere that you said : The book and the movie (October Sky)
are different. how much do you think they are different?and why did
Hollywood change the real story?
( sorry but because of boycott we can't find your books up to 1000 Miles
far away here. and we just watched the movie. the price of "rocket boys"
book for buying from Europe is about expenditures a month of my family.
so how ever i like to read your books ,but i can’t.)
**** I don't like to point out the differences if you've only seen the
film. Otherwise, it might seem disappointing to you. A screenplay is a
much different art form than a book. A movie has only 90 minutes or so
to tell a story while a writer can take as long as he/she likes to write
a novel or memoir. Inevitably, there are differences. I suppose the main
one with Rocket Boys and October Sky is that our rockets were much more
sophisticated than shown and also it took three years of development
work where the movie made it over a much shorter period. Also, the
science fairs were not our motivating factor. It was only when we were
nearing high school graduation we decided to enter the fairs because our
teacher Miss Riley wanted us to try. There were no scholarships but we
all went to college, either by first going into the military to get a
scholarship or, in my case, by my parents helping me and by me working
in the coal mines during summers to raise extra money.
As far as I know you published your newest book about your family's
alligator Albert by the name of "carrying Albert home". so after this ,
what is your next book about? is there any next one?
**** There will be a next one. I can't talk about it yet. Publishers
don't like that.
People are not interested of space stories as much as some years
ago.Now they prefer reading stories about quantum physics more than
space-related subjects in scientific genre. do you have any plans to use
this field (quantum physics) and its mysteries in your next book?
Let me ask about NASA. How difficult and how fantastic can it to be
work in NASA?
**** When I worked for NASA, every day I woke up and said to myself, "Oh
boy! I get to go to work at NASA today!" I enjoyed the work very much. I
spent many months in Japan training the first Japanese astronauts,
worked as a diver in the neutral buoyancy simulator, wore the suit to
practice underwater the Hubble Space Telescope repair missions before
the astronauts tried the procedures, and helped design the Spacelab and
set up all the astronaut training still being used for the International
Space Station. It was a lot of fun.
By your opinion which field of aerospace will make the future of this
**** For the aero part of aerospace, I think supersonic passenger and
freight transports of some kind are inevitable but I'm not sure how that
will evolve. As for space, artificial intelligence will become very
important. I also foresee the moon as the most important of space
destinations for humans and, eventually, we will see mining there. I
wrote a trio of young adult books about what life will be like on the
moon. They are titled Crater, Crescent, and The Lunar Rescue Company.
Space medicine is just in its infancy so much work to be done there.
Ultimately, I hope to see plumbers, carpenters, electricians, miners,
and lots of blue collar workers in space living, working, and raising
their families. It is my further hope that a new civilization and
culture will rise there. I don't expect it to be perfect. I expect it to
be rough, pioneering, and at times desperate but ultimately triumphant.
What was the most surprising thing you had ever encountered in your
**** That I never used a slide rule! I surely used one a lot in college.
You won't have that experience, I'm sure.
Have you ever participated in or been the manager of a project which
is related to guns and war machines in NASA? or you just working on the
shuttle's mission and peaceful things? what's your feeling about it?
**** I am a Vietnam veteran of the 4th Infantry Division and was there
during 1967-68, the bloodiest time of the entire war. It convinced me
war is never the answer to anything except misery and more war. I am not
a pacifist but war is no video game. It's an awful and cruel and
miserable thing and people get hurt, experience excruciating pain, and
if they don't die, carry the scars for the rest of their lives. After
the war, I worked for the U.S. Army as a civilian engineer but not on
weapons but mostly computers and programming and such. While I worked
for NASA, I never worked on anything of a military nature. NASA is a
civilian organization by law.
Which part of you is bigger? writer part or engineer part? could you
explain more, please?
**** Now, writer. Then, engineer. I always wanted to be both and managed
to accomplish my dreams of success in both fields. I never saw any
conflict between them. To be a good engineer, you really must also learn
to write well. One of the requirements of engineering is being able to
express your ideas, both written and through speaking, in such a way to
convince others you are going in the correct direction. Engineering is
rarely an individual process. Nearly always, you are part of a team and
have to learn how to be a good leader and also a good follower. However,
an engineer must always question what is being done, especially if he
sees a better way... and there is nearly ALWAYS a better way.
At first, I wanted to ask you whether "do you still see your Rocket
boys friends?" , But then I found out you have an anniversary event,
called " Rocket boys festival" in September2019 . Would you explain it
**** Yes. Please go to www.rocketboysfestival.com
for more information
on that. There were actually six rocket boys. Five of us are still
alive. Quentin rarely comes to the festival but Roy Lee, O'Dell, and
Billy (not in the movie) usually show up. It's always good to see them.
Lets talk about a wonderful woman, whom you wrote the book "My dream"
about her, Anousheh Ansari. How do you know her? And what encouraged you
to write this book?
(I will be so thankful if you tell us a good memory about Anousheh Ansari.)
**** Ah, Anousheh! One of my favorite people in the world. I read
somewhere she was only a few days from being launched to the space
station so, on a whim, I sent her an email wishing her luck and she
wrote back! When she got back from space, she contacted me, we met and I
asked her if she'd like to write her memoir and, if so, could I help her
with it. She said yes. She's a wonderful person. I will include a couple
of photos of us. One is in front of the grave of Miss Baker, a famous
monkey who flew into space. The other is in my Huntsville neighborhood
trying out some devices called Trikkes which are good exercise!
At last, what would you say to young aerospace engineering students as
an advice in starting this way!
**** It's good to hitch your wagon to a healthy horse. In other words,
choose wisely your employer and then try to get an experienced engineer
that you respect to mentor you. Listen more than you talk at first. If
you can, eventually you'll want to lead your own company. But always
never forget, especially in aerospace, your duty to the people who will
fly aboard your machines. Keep them safe but get them there!
thank you very much for spending time with us.
**** Hope this was helpful. Please give my best to your family and friends.