Film: I always wanted to go into space, man

Homer Hickam - hillbilly turned rocket scientist - belongs in the movies. But has Hollywood done him justice? By Liese Spencer
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The Independent Culture
In 1887, George L Carter rode into the West Virginian wilderness on the back of a mule and discovered one of the richest seams of bituminous coal in the world. By 1957, the mining town of Coalwood had a company hotel, a company store and a company church. Each miner had a company house, the rent deducted directly from his pay-packet. Inside each house was a Warm Morning Stove and a coal-box the company kept full.

When schoolboy Homer H Hickam Jr threw back his blanket in the morning, a black powder would float off, and when he took his shoes off at night his socks would be coated in coal dust. As Hickam says: "The Company and Coalwood were one and the same." The son of the mine's foreman, Homer was destined to follow his father underground, until the Soviets launched Sputnik into space. Watching it arc over a town where boys grew up to be miners, Homer resolved to become a rocket scientist.

And it is this unlikely trajectory - from dirt-poor hill-billy to Nasa engineer - that fuels Joe Johnston's new film, October Sky. Adapted from Hickam's autobiography Rocket Boys, its compelling coming-of-age tale follows Homer and his friends on their quixotic mission to build a rocket big enough to blast them out of Coalwood.

"I knew I wanted to be part of this great space race that was developing," says fiftysomething Hickam in his high, slightly sibilant voice (imagine an Appalachian Daffy Duck), "but I didn't have a clue how to do that except to build my own rocket. Now that's pretty naive when you stop to think about it." Inspired by the feats of projectile pioneer, Wernher von Braun, Homer and his friends improvised their own home-made missiles. After blowing up his mother's picket fence, they began testing them in a small clearing. Dubbed "Cape Coalwood", this small bald patch in the Appalachian forests was witness to some spectacular failures. "I didn't imagine it would be so hard. It became a challenge, we wanted to make these things work."

There was little encouragement from Homer's father, who thought rocketry was foolish. Or from the school principal who believed that it was his job to prepare boys for a life down the mines. But after hearing about his experiments, Homer's teacher, Miss Riley (played in the film by Laura Dern), gave him a book on rocket science from which Homer, who had always been poor at maths, taught himself trigonometry. The textbook turned out to be pitched at postgraduate level but, says Homer: "I had such a desire to make these rockets fly, I was willing to bend my brain around anything."

After doing their sums, Homer and his friends borrowed alcohol from a local moonshiner and talked a machinist into casting them tubes of stronger steel. Their rockets went higher and further and the "rocket boys" became local celebrities. A crowd gathered each week to join the countdown. But just when Homer's hands-on science looked set to win him a college scholarship, his father suffered an accident. With the only breadwinner in bed, Homer had to take his place. For a while his ambitions lay buried beneath a collapsed mine shaft, but eventually Homer made it out of the mine to join a new generation of space pioneers.

It is a story straight out of one of the Jules Verne books Hickam loved as a child, so it's little surprise that the film rights to Hickam's life were snapped up by Universal. When the engineer retired from Nasa last year, he found himself travelling to Tennessee to meet his 17-year-old screen self, Jake Gyllenhall. "All the boys showed up at the same time," says Hickam, "I thought, `gee I hope that's the one playing me'."

At the time, Gyllenhall was taking lessons in West Virginian. "Instead of saying Pont-iac we were taught to say Ponyiac," says the artfully scruffy actor. Born and bred in sunny California, this affluent child of "bi-coastal" parents found it hard to imagine the constraints of life in dour, 1950s Coalwood. Or to get inside the dusty shoes of a boy who had never been outside that small town.

To help him, director Johnston arranged for Jake and his co-stars to go on a hike through the Appalachian forest. "He took us out and just let us wander around in the wilderness all day," says Gyllenhall. "You felt as if you were in a secure, secluded environment."

"You were," laughs Hickam. "Swinging on vines, climbing trees, breaking limbs - that was what it was all about."

"We couldn't do any of that," sighs Gyllenhall. "We were too well insured. We got lost. But we were always followed."

Real life did get something of a look-in, though: October Sky's grim, light-starved look, for example, is entirely authentic. "In Coalwood, the mountains were very close together," says Homer, "which meant we only had the sun between 10am and 2pm." On set in Tennessee, the weather co-operated by raining every day. Still, it was by all accounts a pretty friendly shoot. "I only got kicked off the set once. For hanging around Laura Dern!" laughs Homer. "They kept coming up and saying `you're on, Miss Dern' and she would say, `I'll be there in a minute, I'm talking to Homer'. All innocence, I just kept talking."

For his part, Hickam had no qualms about entrusting his remarkable history to the man who directed Honey, I Shrunk the Kids. "Actually, I think of him more as the maker of The Rocketeer." That film, which sees Timothy Dalton flying around on his own jet-powered backpack is, he says, a great favourite among Nasa nerds.

Maybe that's all Hickam is. He retains his "naive" faith in the American Dream. But who can blame him when his own life fits it so snugly?

`October Sky' is released this week