Friday, December 31, 2021

NASA Man: The illustrated Don't Blow Yourself Up



After requests from readers for more illustrations in my new memoir Don't Blow Yourself Up, I am writing a series of blogs with photos and maps.  This one covers Part 4 of the memoir titled NASA MAN which includes my career with NASA from 1981 to 1998.

I was hired by NASA while I was still in Germany working for the Army in Grafenwoehr, the big training base in Bavaria that is used to train combat units. My job was to manage the work needed to keep the base operational. NASA wanted me to come and help the Spacelab Program Office keep track its many work orders and inventory by computerizing the system.

Spacelab rested in the cargo bay with a connecting tunnel.

This I did until the Challenger disaster. I was in Japan negotiating with their space agency for a Spacelab mission when Challenger and her crew were lost. I returned and worked on the solid rocket motor redesign for awhile, then asked to transfer to the Mission Operations Lab and became a payload crew training manager. I also worked in NASA's Neutral Buoyancy Simulator as a diver helping astronauts to work underwater on various space missions. Water provided buoyancy and simulated microgravity.


Homer Hickam in orange wet suit working with astronaut in Neutral Buoyancy Simulator

 During this time, I volunteered to design and manage the construction of a small neutral buoyancy tank at Space Camp in Huntsville. We called it the Underwater Astronaut Trainer (UAT). I also designed a suit that students could wear underwater just like real astronauts. With my company Deep Space, we trained Space Camp/Academy students in the evening.

Linda Terry and student in the UAT suit around 1989. I am top left. Linda is LT in the memoir. We were married a decade later.


In the UAT suit

I also went up to New York and trained David Letterman to scuba dive and work in the UAT helmet for a show that unfortunately never happened

In 1989, I was assigned to Japan to help train the first Japanese astronauts. This began many adventures there and I met many wonderful Japanese trainers, engineers, and astronauts

Takao Doi, Momoru Mohri, Homer Hickam, Stan Koszelak, Chiaki Mukai

Spacelab-Japan Training Team. I'm 3rd from left 2nd row.

After Spacelab-Japan flew in 1992, I worked on the Hubble Space Telescope repair mission in the Neutral Buoyancy Simulator. To prepare for the astronauts to train, some of us engineers went underwater in the Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) suit to work out the procedures. It was the first use of Nitrox, a mixed gas that some feared would cause the "suited subject" to catch on fire. To make sure it was OK, we volunteered to go into the suit.

Homer Hickam in the EMU suit working the HST repair procedures

After SL-J and HST, I wrote a Tech Study on how the USA could go back to the Moon. NASA had no interest in going and engineers were restricted from helping me but I did it, anyway, by disguising it as a study of the South Pole Station. This study is still on the books and available to the managers and engineers as we finally go back to Luna (let's hope that remains true).

My clever little moon anchor as described in my 1993 (!) study for NASA

My study can be seen here:


I also got to meet a very special person and give her a tour of the Spacelab module in our Payload Crew Training Complex. Hello Olivia!

Olivia Newton-John and Homer Hickam

Afterwards, I was assigned to the International Space Station as the payload training manager. I was one of a team of NASA managers and engineers sent to negotiate with the Russians to figure out how we were going to build the station and train the cosmonauts and astronauts.

I had an interesting time in Moscow and the environs and made many friends

With a replica of Sputnik 1 and shaking hands with a cosmonaut

In 1998, I retired from NASA. I had 30 years of federal service and it was time to let younger folks take over. I also had a new writing career!

Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Homer Hickam Vietnam Service Area - Photos/Maps to Accompany Memoir: Don't Blow Yourself Up


This blog presents maps and photos to accompany the portions of Homer Hickam's memoir Don't Blow Yourself Up that cover his service in Vietnam.


Google Earth Map of Vietnam today. It is considered part of Southeast Asia


South Vietnam (aka The Republic of Vietnam) was divided into four areas by US forces during the Vietnam war.  II Corps comprised the area known as the Central Highlands, a very mountainous, heavily forested region. Hickam served entirely in II Corps. While he was in Vietnam, the 4th Infantry Div. and the First Cavalry Div. were the two largest American army forces in the region, the 4th with headquarters near Pleiku, the 1st with headquarters near An Khe.

If you look below the large word SOUTH on this map, you will see the coastal city of Qui Nhon. This was a staging area for the US Army during the war and supplies were carried westward by truck convoys to American and South Vietnamese forces. Look westward from Quih Nhon (to the left) and you'll see Pleiku, the capital of the Central Highlands area. Follow the road north from Pleiku and you'll see the town of Kontum. Keep going and you'll see Dak To. Follow the road south from Pleiku, you'll see the town of Ban Me Thuot. Follow the road west out of Pleiku, you'll see the Cambodian border. Nearby was the Oasis Firebase. Follow the road east from Pleiku, you'll see the Mang Yang Pass. Nearby was Blackhawk Firebase. These were the primary locations Hickam served in the Vietnam War. Hickam flew into Cam Ranh Bay, a giant American base on the sea. In this map, at bottom left, it is designated Ganh Rai Bay.


 This is a closer look at the area from Kontum in the north to Ban Me Thuot to the south where Hickam served.  Except for brief air hops in and out, he did not serve in or near Saigon.

This is a GoogleMaps map of the Central Highlands of Vietnam with "Dragon Mountain" shown. This was near the location of Camp Enari, the base camp of the 4th Infantry Division.

Artillery Lieutenant Rick Terrell, Texas A&M graduate who taught Hickam how to call in artillery on the flight over to Vietnam

Lieutenant Nick Jarrett at the Oasis. Nick taught Hickam how to lead his men.

Homer Hickam after a day on the road in Vietnam

Hickam with his banana cat he named BC

Muddy lake of a work area at BMT that had to be drained one way or the other

Hickam at shot-up gas station in Ban Me Thuot

Friday, November 26, 2021

The Illustrated Don't Blow Yourself Up Part 1: Everybody's Favorite Cadet


Now that my memoir Don't Blow Yourself Up: The Further Adventures and Travails of the Rocket Boy of October Sky has been published, I've gotten a number of requests or wishes that there would have been more photos, maps, etc. so that some of the events and places might be better understood and enjoyed.

Since I like to please my readers, I am happy to comply with at least a blog that will help illustrate the memoir. This is being done quickly so please forgive the quality of the photos. Let's start at the beginning of the memoir and that's Part 1, Everybody's Favorite Cadet. 

Part 1 of DBYU


This part covers my college years and especially the building of the famous iconic cannon Skipper. Sadly,  when I began to research the memoir, it quickly became evident that there is little photographic evidence of the old girl but I'll do what I can.

One question that has arisen is why did I go to Virginia Tech (often called VPI in those days) and not West Virginia University? Mostly, it was because that's where my mother wanted me to go. This was because (1) my brother was already there on a football scholarship and it was simpler for her to keep track of her boys if they were both at the same place, (2) VPI had a really good engineering school, and (3)  Blacksburg was a lot closer to Coalwood than Morgantown. Although I don't have maps of that era, here are a couple from today that still illustrates that situation:

Coalwood to Blacksburg

Coalwood to Morgantown

In 1960, the trip from Coalwood to Morgantown was even longer, often involving an overnight. There were no Interstates back then!

VPI was then almost exclusively a men's military college and most students were in its Cadet Corps (unless you were a veteran or, like my brother Jim, could opt out because he was a scholarship athlete).

The first year at VPI, I was one of hundreds of freshmen or, as they were called, Rats. We underwent some harsh discipline which, along with the tough academics, weeded out a lot of us.

Photo taken from the 1963 VT Yearbook Bugle

However, after a rough start which included getting more demerits than any cadet in my class, I began to fit in well and actually started to like it, enough that I became the self-proclaimed Everybody's Favorite Cadet.

Virginia Tech Corps of Cadets formation, 1962

Cadet Hickam, Sophomore year

I saw little of my brother during our years there but I was still proud of his first-string status on the football team.

Brother Jim at VTech

I was a member of Squadron A, class of '64, and we became as close as brothers. Even today, we still are. Here is a photo of us at that time.

That's me upper right with George Fox (fellow cannon builder) causing trouble as always.


One of the big events for our Corps was the annual Thanksgiving game against the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) It was called the Military Classic of the South and was a very big deal.

A Squadron marching through Roanoke for the big game

VMI had a small game cannon they called Little John. They would fire it and then chant "Where's your cannon?" We didn't like that much so three of us decided to do something about it. Ultimately, even though we had no support from the University at all, and were often actively opposed by the Administration, Butch (Ben) Harper, George Fox, and I conceived, designed, and built our own cannon. We named it Skipper after our assassinated young President JFK, skipper of a PT-boat during WWII. 

The only known photo (copied from The Roanoke Times) of Skipper the day of the big game in 1963. That's me with my back turned, probably because we were still unauthorized.

Skipper was a huge success. We fired it and chanted "Here's our cannon!"

Cadet 1st Lieutenant "Flash" Hickam, Senior Year


Here's some more information and photos of the Skipper story


Skipper has gone on to become an icon at Virginia Tech. Butch, George (now deceased), and I have returned many times to celebrate it with today's marvelous young cadets. There's even a special Skipper crew now, designated by the red stripes on their pants. Butch and I returned on Veteran's Day, 2021, to celebrate our old Skipper and the new one that still  roars at games and special events on the Virginia Tech campus.


Butch Harper and I with the original Skipper and the Skipper crew

Me with the present-day Skipper and its crew in May, 2021. I donated my sabre (it has my name inscribed on it) to the crew and it is carried by its commander.

To order my new memoir, please go here and click on the appropriate link!

Monday, October 4, 2021

Don't Blow Yourself Up: The writing of a memoir

Miss Harper Lee famously refused to write a sequel to her To Kill a Mockingbird because (and I'm paraphrasing here) she didn't want to screw up her masterpiece. After she was too addled by age to stop it, one did sort of come out but it was quickly (and thankfully) forgotten. She would have been glad about that.

When I pass, I know very well that despite writing many books, my literary contribution will be centered around Rocket Boys, a memoir that resulted in a movie they titled October Sky. With that in mind, I somewhat emulate Miss Lee in her opinion although I've already written two books that are set in Coalwood, the home of the Rocket Boys memoir, one an "equal" titled The Coalwood Way (which takes place right in the middle of the Rocket Boys story and includes them in all their rocket-building glory) and the other Sky of Stone, set in Coalwood a year after the boys built their last rocket. I also wrote sort of a prequel, such being the novel Carrying Albert Home, and one a post 9/11 inspirational piece set primarily in Coalwood titled We Are Not Afraid.

But a true sequel? Even though many readers of Rocket Boys wanted to know what happened to that boy after the last great rocket of the Big Creek Missile Agency and asked how it was he came to work for NASA and did some other things like getting caught up in the war in Vietnam, I resisted writing a sequel just like Miss Lee and for just about the same reason. However, things change. During this past year, sequestered by a virus running wild throughout the world, it came to me that maybe it was finally time to write it if I ever was. And so I did.

To explain how I approached the work, here's the Introduction in the book which, after some contemplation and pretty much driving my publisher crazy with proposals for what the title should be, we finally settled on Don't Blow Yourself Up: The Further True Adventures and Travails of the Rocket Boy of October Sky.




If you’re reading this, likely you’ve also read about my adventures as a young rocket builder in the little mining town of Coalwood, West Virginia. I wrote about that in a memoir called Rocket Boys (which was made into the marvelous movie October Sky) and then followed it with two sequels, The Coalwood Way and Sky of Stone, both set in my hometown.But there was a bit more to my life than I wrote about in those books. After Coalwood, I went to a tough engineering military school where I famously built a cannon, and then I fought in a war, and then became a scuba instructor, dived on some deep shipwrecks, and unraveled the history of a giant battle along the American coasts. Along the way I worked for NASA, and then I wrote a famous book, had a movie made that was based on it, and did some other things. More importantly, I had a lot of great friends during all of it. And a few enemies, too. Such things happen in a long life.

 After enough people asked me when I was going to do it, I decided to sit down and write about some of the things that happened in those years after I was a Rocket Boy in West Virginia. This memoir is the result. There isn’t room to write it all down, but maybe I can hit some highlights up through the time Rocket Boys was written and October Sky was made, a stretch of nearly forty years. A lot has happened since, but endings are as important as beginnings. When I teach writing, I tell my aspiring writers, especially ones interested in writing memoirs, to think about where they’re going before they go there. If you just write down everything that happened without running a thread through the piece that ties it up at the end, you may not ever figure out how to get there or when you’re done. There’s also a Bible proverb I’ve always admired that says, “It is the glory of God to hide a thing but the honor of kings to search it out.” What I think that means is our Creator didn’t just hand us all the answers but left it up to us to seek out what is true and real.That’s what this book is mostly about, stories about times in my life when I’ve learned truths about myself or other people or even the world that I think my readers might like to think about. Or, almost as important, those times that caused smiles or tears. I hope you enjoy my choices.


It was after I'd finished the memoir that I wrote the Introduction and was therefore easy at that point to say "hope you enjoy my choices." But it wasn't easy when I started. After all, there were 60 years worth of life after that last Coalwood rocket. How to choose what to tell and what to leave out?

My first choice was to simply cut out twenty years, those being the last I've led. The reason for that was after I wrote Rocket Boys and the movie was made, my life changed. It wasn't better or worse, just different, because I was pinned on a board like a butterfly of a distinct and rare genus, Authorus Who-us Wrotus Thatus Bookus Aboutus thoseus RocketBoyus. It colored nearly everything I did from that moment on which was fine but it also meant what happened before and after were distinct. After making the decision where to stop, such being the year 2000, it was time to consider both the beginning as well as the ending of the work to allow them, in some manner, to touch.

An important, perhaps critical part of writing is thinking about what you're going to write before you write it. On this foundation, to salve my conscience during idleness, I have spent many hours happily thinking about thinking about what I'm going to write. This inevitably leads me to think about everything else until, to my happy surprise, in the midst of some reverie about nothing to do with writing, out pops a tiny seed of an idea that I consider, turn this way and that and then, if it seems to have promise, plant through my fingers onto a keyboard to see if it will grow. It doesn't always but sometimes it does, enough for this writer to raise a garden of words that turns into a book. There's been nineteen of them so far, including this latest one, so my approach must at least work in some fashion.

The seed that came to me after thinking and not thinking about this memoir was the moment I left for college with my mother seeing me off from our back yard that led to an alley and then a long road over many mountains and years. Considering that, I recalled that almost exactly forty years later, I found myself back at that yard with my mother during a celebration of Rocket Boys/October Sky with the governor of the entire state of West Virginia and lots of friends and fans in attendance. Those events, I decided, were the bookends of the story. All I had to do was fill in all that happened between. But—wait—all?

All was not possible nor even wise. What was needed was a good story well told, one that would cause the reader to want to turn the page to see what was going to happen next. More decisions were therefore needed, decisions that required more thinking that led to . . . well, same story as above, to seeds planted that became words fashioned into stories of people and places and events across those chosen decades.

In the end, I decided to divide the story of my post-Rocket Boys years into five parts that had distinct story arcs and time frames.

The five parts begin with these titles and photographs:

Part 1 - Everybody's Favorite Cadet

Part 2 - American Soldier


 Part 3 - The Purposeful Adventurer

Part 4 - NASA Man

 Part 5 - That Author Feller

As I write this, it's the first week of October, 2021. During the count-down to the book publication (the 26th of October), I'll blog over the next several weeks about each of those five parts, how I approached them and some of the decisions made. Whether you're interested in writing a memoir yourself or simply the writing process or just wonder about the back story of the work, I hope you'll come along with me during the book's journey.

 - - Homer Hickam


Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Some Thoughts for our Afghanistan War Veterans


            A few weeks after the 1968 Tet Offensive, I sat in the ruins of an old French Foreign Legion barracks on a rusty folding chair I'd found somewhere and contemplated the two dozen or so white rocks that served as tombstones in a rat graveyard. After a hazardous thunder run from Pleiku that had mostly turned into a miserable, painful crawl, the armored cav unit I was with had been ordered to set up shop in the bleached and crumbling concrete ruins only to discover they were overrun with giant rats. With no choice, the situation being either them or us, we went on the offensive with our entrenching tools. So far, we had been victorious against the rat brigade but not against the North Vietnamese Army. Other than some remnants left behind to occasionally drop a mortar round or a rocket on top of us, the NVA had given us the slip across the Cambodian border beyond which, to our everlasting frustration, we were not allowed to pursue.

            My pondering of the rat cemetery was interrupted when someone who had a radio turned its volume up and, all of a sudden, Nancy Sinatra stopped singing about her boots awalkin' and who should come on but our esteemed and wonderful President Lyndon Baines Johnson who blathered on until at last he reached the part that caused a lusty cheer to rise up from the American troops all around me. Ol' LBJ was not going to run again. He'd given up. My thought was, "Well, what do you know? They beat us." And they had, too. It took a few more years for it all to come crashing down but when your commander-in-chief cuts and runs, you have to know you're in a war that's not going to turn out well. No matter, we whistled and clapped when he said he was as good as gone. By then, after all the crap we'd gone through, we had come to detest him that much.

            Last year, I spent a good part of my time writing a memoir titled Don't Blow Yourself Up (DBYU). One of my comments on writing Rocket Boys is that in the process of writing it, I got a million dollars of psychotherapy I don't even know I needed. Well, what do you know? I got another million's worth writing this one, too, and part of that was dragging my brain back through the Vietnam era. For some reason, I've got one of those memories that can put myself right back into a situation decades ago and walk myself through it day by day, sometimes hour by hour. For a memoir writer, that's a blessing. For a normal person, however, I suspect it's a curse. Luckily, nobody ever accused me of being entirely normal.



            Besides recalling Vietnam and all the madness I witnessed or was part of in my year there, I also again accepted I was a veteran of a conflict where we won every battle but lost the war and a lot of good Americans died or were maimed for no good result. Writing about that made fresh the sting and still does. And now, almost unbelievably, we have bumbled our way to the same result in yet another war. Many if not most of our veterans of that war are hurting because they are left to wonder what all that hard, bloody work, all that time and sacrifice, was about. In this, your Vietnam War brethren can certainly relate and maybe offer some helpful thoughts. At the end of the part in DBYU where I came home from Vietnam, I wrote this:


            After hooking a ride on a Chinook to Cam Ranh Bay, I climbed aboard a passenger jet, a gold Braniff, and sat down where they told me to sit down and flew to McChord Air Force Base and then was bused to Fort Lewis, Washington, there to process and move on to wherever life took me next. The flight back was nothing like the boisterous flight over. The men inside sat quietly, spent. For my part, I looked down on the clouds over the Pacific Ocean and dully watched them slide by. The next day, as I walked through the airport in uniform, a young woman in tie-dye and bell bottoms spotted me, hissed something, and gave me the finger while applying the F word in my direction. I didn’t care. My whole life was in front of me and what I did with it was up to me. She was on her own.


            And that was the point. I had done my duty. What anybody else thought about it or me didn't matter. If I was going to have a good life, I would have to make it so and the girl in the airport who thought herself superior to me and the others home from the war would have to do so as well. I wonder which of us had the better result. Yet, I also wrote this in the next chapter:


            If you’d asked me how I was doing during the decade after I came back from Vietnam, I would have wondered why you were asking and would’ve probably said, “Well, I’m doing fine,” which would have been a total lie even though I didn’t know it. Looking back now, I realize I was actually completely and totally messed up and there’s not much else I can add to that except it’s so.


            When Saigon fell in 1975, I was in San Diego going through the open water work that would lead to gaining my scuba instructor's rating. By then, it was seven years after I'd sat in that rat graveyard and realized the war was probably going to end just like it did. Since then, there had been a lot of positive things that had happened in my life. I'd lived in Puerto Rico, I had a good job with the Army Missile Command in Huntsville, I had managed some success with free-lance writing, and I was starting to do all the diving and research that would ultimately lead to my first book Torpedo Junction. In other words, I had found positive things to do and be passionate about, things that allowed me to put Vietnam firmly in my rear view mirror. But wars fought tend to stick with those who fight them and can come out in the form of doubt and uncertainty. With that in mind, I would like to offer this advice to our new veterans of a war fought well by its troops and lost poorly by its leaders:


            • It's OK to grieve for not only those who died or were maimed but for your own time lost, the brutality you observed, and the coarsening of your life's experience.


            • It's OK to talk about the war's result to anyone you think might understand, to get it off your chest, to express your resentment of the leadership that allowed it to happen, and to rage a little against the unfairness of it.


            • It's OK to be proud of what you accomplished, for how you served, and with whom you served, and for the good things you learned that will make you a better person, a more productive citizen to your country, and a leader within your family and community.


            • It's OK to look at your country and the world through the clear eyes of someone who has suffered failure through no fault of your own but now has the strength and determination of a survivor.




            • It's OK to respect the enemy who won. You don't have to like them or what they stand for but  they showed up on the battlefield and were tenacious. That deserves respect, however grudging.




            • It's not OK to let the war take over your mind and affect your outlook on the rest of your life. That is the most dangerous thing you can do.



            • Don't let the people who lost the war continue to lead. Get involved. Serve in political office. And, this time, let your mantra be: Never Again.


            I wrote in DBYU:


            After an invitation from the International Institute of Education in 2008, we traveled to Vietnam to speak to students about furthering their education. Remarkably and coincidentally, it turned out that the Vietnamese version of Rocket Boys was published the same time we were there. After traveling so far, I felt it necessary to go back to the old battlefields in the Central Highlands to recall those days with such brave men. There was hardly anything I recognized there, but I was so glad to see the country at peace. Everywhere we went, we were treated with overwhelming love and hospitality.


            When we were in Hanoi, I was invited to meet with Vietnamese writers and it turned out most of them were veterans of the North Vietnamese Army. Although I didn't much want to talk about it, they did and I finally gave in. Over several hours of sharing, we realized there was much we had in common, that we were, as one of them said, "like chess pieces they moved around and swept off the board any time they chose." Their leadership had often failed them, too, and, just as with most American Vietnam vets, they were wary of their own government and not a little bitter.

            Finally, one of them asked me, "What did you think of us?"

            At that question, they all leaned forward on the other side of the table and I could tell this was gravely important to them. I gave it some careful thought and then said, "We thought you were very good. Very, very good." And they were, too.

            That answer earned me some smiles. They liked me saying that they were good soldiers a lot. But I didn't ask them what they thought of us because I didn't care. We were American soldiers and no matter how bad our leaders were, we were still good. Very, very good.

    And no matter how bad our leaders are now, that's still true.

    Hang onto that.

    And have a great life. You deserve it.

Friday, July 9, 2021

The Day I Became an Astronaut

Although there are times in our lives that stand out clearly, none could possibly be clearer than the day one becomes an Astronaut, to officially fly into space where the curvature of the Earth is visible and the great sphere of our blue and white and brown planet spins serenely below while we risk all to touch the face of God (which He/She may or may not appreciate but He/She gave us the tools so hey). For me (and my wife Linda), that day was in 1999. During all my years of building and blowing up rockets, and working for NASA and training those folks who flew in the Space Shuttle (so-called), I had always hoped somehow and some day to become an Astronaut but, no, I had been so unfairly unable to reach my dream of space because the NASA Astronaut Office, with its snotty, elite, coal miner's son - phobic attitude, refused to pick me to join their astronaut program. True, I hadn't applied to be an astronaut with them, and I had awful grades at the Virginia Tech engineering school (in my defense, over 80% of my fellow students there in the 1960's were in the bottom half of our class), and I had terrible vision (20/400 in both eyes but I had good knees and legs and stuff), and a couple of the astronauts I knew kept trying to get me fired (because of offenses I may or may not have performed with and against them depending on your/their/my point of view) but otherwise it was entirely NASA's fault and tendency to want what they considered "the best" for their "Astronaut" program rather than folks like, well, "me." 

 But then it came as Kismet deemed it must that I became an Astronaut! My great opportunity to become one was - wait for it - all David Letterman's fault! While I was attending the Venice Film Festival (that would be Venice like in Italy, not California, ahem), and hanging out with Laura Dern and Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, I was asked to come on David's show because he loved the book Rocket Boys and the movie October Sky and I also taught him how to scuba dive in 1989 (which is in my new memoir out this October, 2021, titled "Don't Blow Yourself Up," plug, plug), but it had to be the very next day and there I was in Venice boating around with Chris Cooper and a bunch of Universal Studio execs, and they said OH MY GOD HOMER YOU HAVE TO GET TO NEW YORK TO BE ON THE LETTERMAN SHOW SO WE CAN SELL OCTOBER SKY! So I said, oh so casually, "I guess I could get there if, you know, ha ha, I took the Concorde." And the Universal Studio pukes said, and I quote "OK!"

Linda just rolled her eyes. "I can't believe you pulled that one off, Hickam," she said and then gave it a little thought. "Yes, I do," she said in a somewhat unhappy tone. We were supposed to have coffee with Nicole whats-her-name the next morning and now we'd have to miss it. I don't know but I think Linda liked hanging around with Nicole more than blasting off into space, I swan.

 So the next thing I knew we were in Paris preparing for our journey to the stars. To gird ourselves for the flight, we were placed in a special holding room they called the "Concorde Lounge" and there fed us a variety of exotic foods and drinks while the countdown clock ticked down. From our vantage point, we could see our spacecraft with strange fumes emanating from a variety of its orifices—or it might have been the morning fog, I forget—while its ground crews went over every component to insure it might hold together during lift-off or, as as some of the other astronauts in the "lounge" called with a nod toward history, "take-off."

The Concorde Spacecraft

The moment finally came to don our flight suits (mine was a specially designed Hawaiian shirt and black jeans with jogging shoes) and then we made the famous "Astronaut walk" that required us to grin and wave to whatever journalists might appear which we did like professionals. Future Astronaut Linda (still complaining about missing breakfast with Nicole) and future Astronaut I (happy boy) filed on board through the specially-designed "ramp" and entered the long, narrow tube only eight and a half feet wide (an NBA basketball player could touch both sides, it was that small), that served as the "capsule" for our lunge skyward.

Inside Our Spacecraft Interior


 To offer at least some protection to my fellow soon come-astronaut Linda, I took the seat closest to the porthole (quaintly called a "window"), which was so tiny that I could cover it with two hands (but didn't as it had obviously recently been cleaned). Suddenly, and without warning, a member of the flight crew with an astonishing set of ... large champagne bottles ... approached us, leaned over Linda with her elbow in her face to show me her ... bottles... and asked if I would like to be served a "flute" of liquid medicine that bubbled with carbon dioxide that she assured me would keep me from being afflicted by Space Adaptation Syndrome (SAS) and would actually make me feel "quite good, Chérie") so, realizing now she was in fact the official space medicine physician aboard our spacecraft, much like my friend Dr. John Charles, the inventor of the rather marvelous (and somewhat infamous) Lower Body Negative Pressure device, that I also wrote about in "Don't Blow Yourself Up," plug, plug, I took her up on it and even might have said with nervy bravado, "Keep them coming!" while Linda's eyes continued to roll just as our spacecraft also began to roll while making a huge amount of noise and shaking as if Zeus himself had come awake inside the vast, complex, and amazingly powerful "engines" and wasn't happy about it, either.

 Lift-off was sudden. G-forces pressed us back against the narrow confines of the "Corinthian" leather-upholstered chairs and the nose of our Concorde spacecraft lifted higher and higher until it pointed toward the very stars. Up and up and up and up and up and up we rose, birds and clouds and atmosphere zipping past the porthole where my nose was all but pressed while I daintily held on to the "flute" of space medicine, now empty.

Our Spacecraft Porthole or "Window"


In front of us a retangular-shaped instrument panel began to count off our "velocity" that was measured in "Mach" numbers. Before I could be struck by SAS, more space medicine was offered by our "space doctor" who leaned over often and well while I greedily consumed the magic elixir (that should be offered up to all astronauts in my opinion). Up and up and up and, did I mention UP we continued, until we finally reached SPACE. The moment I looked out my porthole and saw the vast curvature of the planet from which we had left, I knew I had done it! I WAS ASTRONAUT HOMER! Mom would have been so proud. Dad would just sighed and walked up to the mine but that's OK. I'd done it! Linda had done it, too, although even as the "Mach" number on our instrument panel reached TWO and then some more, she wasn't able to entirely enjoy it as the space "medicine" had caused her to go to sleep although she did rouse herself for the petit fours and more flutes of anti-SAS meds from the marvelously equipped "space doctor" along later with a meal of special "space food" with bizarre connotations such as "Lobster" and "Fresh-caught Salmon" and "Truffles" and "Croquettes." It was strange food for this West Virginia boy but, in the interest of science I persevered.

Later, when I put my hand on the interior surface of the "capsule," it felt warm to my touch which I took to mean the horrific friction of the cosmos was wearing away at the thin metallic structure of our spacecraft. As we zoomed along, this was all that was between me and the empty reaches of space but yet I was not afraid! Fearlessly, I took the time to observe the planet passing below that I later determined was the part of its surface called the "North Atlantic" which was entirely covered with a silky fluffiness called, in space parlance, "clouds." Yet the curvature of the vast orb was obvious and I allowed myself, for just one moment, to be little "Sonny" Hickam, Rocket Boy of the Big Creek Missile Agency, who had finally been allowed to be a Star Voyager.

The Curvature of the Earth from our Spacecraft


Although entirely anti-climatic after becoming an "Astronaut," I did make the David Letterman show that very night. Before I went on, David's producers asked me if they could show a clip of me teaching him how to scuba dive in a New Jersey Red Roof Inn swimming pool even though that meant they wouldn't have time to show a clip from that movie called October Sky. After giving that idea some thought, I said, and I quote "OK!" And that's what happened! As I recall, the Universal Studios people who paid for me to fly the Concorde weren't entirely happy about that but, then again, I don't recall them particularly ever being happy about much I did. What mattered, of course, was that I had become an Astronaut and still am to this day! And Linda, too, of course, although I think she would still trade the title for breakfast with Nicole, go figure. 

 -- Concorde Astronaut Homer Hickam

PS - After the Letterman show, Bandleader Paul Schaeffer said my appearance was "Way Cosmic." This, of course, if nothing else, made my Astronaut status official. 

PPS: We actually flew the Concorde twice. This first one from Paris and the second from London. Both times to New York to make a deadline to publicize October Sky. Falling for the perfidy, Universal Studios paid for it both times.

PPPS: Just kidding on that "always wanted to be an Astronaut" thing. Not really for a variety of reasons, all told in that book titled, as you may recall, Don't Blow Yourself Up!