Homer Hickam is a NASA engineering legend, a soldier, and a best-selling author. In an exclusive interview with The Business Standard, he opened up about his life and illustrious career
Jake Gyllenhaal's "October Sky" – a critically acclaimed film of 1999 – told the story of a school kid named Homer Hickam.
Hickam got inspired to build rockets when he heard about the first artificial satellite Sputnik being launched into space.
Despite his coal miner father's resistance, Hickam and his friends became amateur rocket builders, participated in the 1960 National Science Fair, and won a gold and silver medal in the area of propulsion.
The film was based on the real-life story of NASA legend Homer Hickam.
The young Homer Hickam of October Sky indeed grew up to become a NASA engineering legend, a soldier, and a best-selling author.
During his long and illustrious life, he chose multiple professions which are vastly different from one another.
But Hickam was equally successful in all of them.
He served as a first lieutenant in the 4th Infantry Division of the US Army from 1967 to 1968 during the Vietnam War.
He was awarded the Army Commendation Medal and a Bronze Star Medal.
Following his separation from service, Hickam worked for the United States Army Aviation and Missile Command and Army Training Command in Germany.
He later joined NASA as an aerospace engineer at Marshall Space Flight Centre, Alabama.
His specialties at NASA included training astronauts in regard to science payloads and extra-vehicular activities (EVA).
Prior to his retirement from NASA in 1998, Hickam was the payload training manager for the International Space Station Programme.
His 1998 memoir "Rocket Boys" was a New York Times Best Seller and was the basis for the movie October Sky.
He is also the author of best-selling books like the "Josh Thurlow" series and "Carrying Albert Home: The Somewhat True Story of a Man, His Wife, and Her Alligator".
His books have been translated into many languages.
At 77, Homer Hickam is now on the board of the internationally famous Space Camp, and a member of the advisory group to the National Space Council.
Recently in an exclusive interview with The Business Standard, Homer Hickam opened up about his life and illustrious career; and advised aspirant Bangladeshi youths who are looking forward to a bright career.
The Business Standard: You grew up in Coalwood, West Virginia where every infrastructure was owned by the mining company, a proper company town, almost a closed system. What inspired you to dream outside this system?
Homer Hickam: My parents were avid readers. They had books coming into the house from book clubs all the time and ordered books for me and my brother, too.
I loved reading so much! During my childhood, I read all the time.
In school, we had great teachers who insisted we learn and kept discipline in the classroom.
With the education I received from books, my teachers, and my parents, I understood a great deal about the outside world even while living in the very small isolated town of Coalwood.
When Sputnik happened, I was well placed to pursue a career in not only the aerospace world but the literary one too!
TBS: Tell us more about yourself. Your journey beginning from the rocket boys, NASA astronauts to Vietnam War, and your journey as an author. These outstanding journeys inspire us. You are 77. What are you currently busy with and what would be your future endeavour?
HH: After my life in Coalwood, I needed to find my way in the world.
My parents and teachers had provided me with a great basic education but now it was time for me to stand on my own.
I went to a very tough engineering school known as Virginia Tech that was also a military college.
After graduating, I went into the United States Army and then fought in the Vietnam War.
When I came home, there was no room for me in the space business so I worked as a civilian engineer for the army for about a decade.
During that time, I also became a writer and a scuba instructor.
I wrote articles about diving on shipwrecks and in the Caribbean.
After living in Germany in the late 1970's, I started working for NASA in Huntsville, Alabama, and concentrated on spacecraft design and astronaut training.
My first book was published in 1989, the non-fiction "Torpedo Junction" about America's battles against the German U-boats during World War II.
I lived in Japan for a year and trained the first Japanese astronauts for the STS-47/Spacelab-J mission.
After that, I worked on the Space Station programme until my next book, "Rocket Boys", was published and then made into the movie October Sky.
In 1999, I retired from NASA and began a long, successful career as an author that continues today.
I am also on the board of the internationally famous Space Camp, a member of the advisory group to the National Space Council, and I occasionally consult with aerospace companies.
Presently, I am active with many writing and consulting projects.
TBS: In one of your interviews you talked about the values of a small town person. Many successful persons in America are from small towns. So, what are those values that make such human beings of quality?
HH: The values that Coalwood instilled in me are these: Always be proud of who you are, always stand up for what you believe, always keep your family together and protect it, always be honest, never deceitful, always be kind to everyone but especially to children and animals, and always trust in God but rely on yourself.
TBS: As a barrier breaker yourself, what would you advise our young people – a large chunk of whom seem to prefer less challenging desk jobs, government jobs to be more specific; how could Bangladesh have more entrepreneurs and a skilled workforce?
HH: The United States is blessed. It is a huge country with lots of resources so it has inherent advantages that smaller countries like Bangladesh do not have.
That is simply the truth.
All I can suggest for young people there is to look for an occupation that is needed, study it hard, maybe as an apprentice, and be the best that you can be.
TBS: In a country like the United States, where there are institutions like NASA and SPACEX, the rocket boys from Coalwood have backup and support to flourish. In absence of prominent institutions as mentioned, how would the aspiring rocket boys of countries such as Bangladesh fulfil their dreams?
HH: Coalwood these days is mostly empty and in ruins. The few people who live there have no jobs.
The coal mines are closed down so for young people in Coalwood and the surrounding area, their only hope for occupational success in the aerospace field or any field is to go elsewhere.
Unfortunately, that may be what young folks in Bangladesh interested in the space business have to do as well.
For young people in Bangladesh, I would recommend pursuing higher education, making contacts with others in the aerospace field in Bangladesh and other countries, and working really hard to find a position
It is easier in the United States because crossing from one state to another is without restrictions so to work for NASA, SPACEX, or in other industries, it is a matter of education, passion, and drive.
For young people in Bangladesh, I would recommend pursuing higher education, making contacts with others in the aerospace field in Bangladesh and other countries, and working really hard to find a position.
A lot of times it is not raw intelligence that makes for a career but perseverance.
In other words, never give up. Keep pushing.