Educators - Rocket Boys Guide - Movie Study Guide
  BASED ON THE EXTRAORDINARY TRUE STORY of Homer Hickam and the Rocket Boys of Coalwood, West Virginia in the New York Times #1 Bestseller autobiography Rocket Boys: a Memoir by Homer Hickam Jr. (the hardcover is called Rocket Boys, paperback October Sky like the movie). The movie name October Sky is an anagram of Rocket Boys, that is, if you move the letters of Rocket Boys around, you get October Sky!! Try it!
  • Teacher's Guide
  • Activity 1
  • Activity 2
  • Activity 3

Dear Educator,
Youth Media International, in cooperation with Universal Pictures, is pleased to provide a study guide to October Sky, an inspiring film which opened in theaters on February 19, 1999. October Sky is based on the triumphant true story of Homer Hickam Jr., a high school student in rural West Virginia, who seemed destined to repeat his father's harsh life in the coal mines until he turned his attention to the skies. At odds with his father, determined to better himself and inspired by the dawn of the space age, he embarks on a quixotic mission that changes his life forever. The film, brought to the screen by the producer of Field of Dreams, is directed by Joe Johnston and stars Laura Dern as an inspirational teacher and Jake Gyllenhaal, who played Billy Crystal's son in City Slickers, as young Homer Hickam Jr. Based on Rocket Boys, an autobiography by NASA science engineer Homer Hickam Jr., October Sky takes place in 1957, soon after the Soviets launched Sputnik and leaped ahead of the United States in the space race. Homer is caught up in the magic of space flight, but the realities of life in a poor, bleak mining town compete with his dreams of escape into the world of scientific inquiry. But even though he is told, rocket scientists don't come from mining towns, his own determination, along with the inspiration and support of others, enables him to make his dreams come true. This study guide will introduce junior and senior high school students to some of the political and social issues of America in the fifties.With sensitivity and honesty, it focuses on such universal teenage dilemmas as gaining family and peer approval, having to choose between conflicting goals, and finding one's place in the world. At the same time, it leads students on a fascinating journey into the wonders of jet propulsion and rocket science. It is available on video/DVD everywhere. We hope you will share this kit with your colleagues. Although the material is copyrighted, you may make as many photocopies as you need.

We welcome your comments and suggestions.
Sincerely, Roberta Nusim Publisher

Homer Hickam Jr. was a young boy from a West Virginia mining town who hungered for his father's approval. He knew he could earn it by following in his father's footsteps and spending his life down in the mines. But Homer had a dream; to go to college and to devote his life to rocket technology. October Sky is based on the true story of the pivotal events that led the teenage Hickam to move closer to his twin goals of reaching for the sky and gaining his father's respect.

The film, adapted from Hickam's autobiography Rocket Boys, combines a sensitive handling of universal coming-of-age themes with an emphasis on the challenge and excitement of scientific inquiry. It also gives students an opportunity to explore an era other than their own as they are introduced to the momentous events that took place in the fifties.
    Program Components
  • This teacher's guide
  • Three reproducible student activity masters
  • A response card for comments

    Program Objectives
  1. To explore concepts and themes from the film October Sky that relate to the complex process of coming of age
  2. To enhance students' understanding of historical periods other than their own
  3. To encourage scientific inquiry and promote interest in the history of space technology
  4. To strengthen research and oral presentation skills and offer essay- and creative-writing opportunities
Target Audience
This program has been designed for junior and senior high school students in science, English and social studies classes.

October Sky is based on the triumphant true story of Homer Hickam Jr., a high school student in rural West Virginia in 1957, who seemed destined to repeat his father's harsh life in the coal mines until he turned his attention to the skies. At odds with his father, determined to better himself, and inspired by the dawn of the space age, he embarks on a quixotic mission that changes his life forever. With the help of his friends, Homer wins first prize in a national science fair and learns he can do anything he sets his mind to. In his quest, Homer also is aided by a supportive teacher and inspired by Werner von Braun, whom he finally meets. Through his determination to reach his goal, he eventually gains the respect of the whole community and, finally, of his father.

The film's cast includes Jake Gyllenhaal (A Dangerous Woman, Josh and S.A.M., City Slickers) as Homer, Chris Cooper (Lone Star, Great Expectations), Laura Dern (Rambling Rose, Jurassic Park), Natalie Canerday (Sling Blade), Chris Owen (The Party, Major Payne), William Lee Scott (The Opposite of Sex, Gattaca), and Chad Lindberg (City of Angels, Velocity of Gary). October Sky is directed by Joe Johnston (The Rocketeer, Jumanji) and produced by Charles Gordon (Field of Dreams) and Larry Franco (Batman Returns).

Lewis Colick based his screenplay on the New York Times #1 Bestseller autobiography Rocket Boys: a Memoir by Homer Hickam Jr.

Another Time, Another Place
Activity One gives students an opportunity to learn about life in a time and place different from that of their own. In Part A they can explore a world that has been characterized as more "innocent" than the present. Encouraging them to compare song lyrics or favorite TV programs and/or films of the two eras will help them to recognize important differences between the fifties and now. Such a comparison can lead to an interesting discussion of whether one period is "better" than another. Where would they rather be? This segment also offers an opportunity to learn about some significant events in our nation's history. In addition to finding out about the Cold War between the U.S. and Russia, students can explore such major events and influences as the Korean War, the McCarthy hearings, the civil rights movement and the culture of the Beat Generation.

Part B focuses on the world of space exploration and lets students research its significant figures and events, both past and present. Encourage students to surf the Web for help in constructing their timeline. A Web page entitled "Space Technology in Wars" will give them all the information they need: (

Part C is designed to be used if students have seen the film. This activity helps them learn about the once-vital coal mining industry and the effects it had on both the environment and the people who worked the mines.

Additional Activities
Have students choose specific topics or personalities covered in The Fifties by David Halberstam and report their findings to the class. Encourage a group of students to create their own classroom quiz and challenge one another to answer questions about significant events and individuals in the early days of rocketry.

Activity Two focuses on the importance of character development and explores issues that are vital to teenagers: individual versus group identity, getting along with one's family, and the need for approval. It helps students think about the qualities necessary for leadership and the importance of working constructively with others.

Part A reminds students that reading fiction and non-fiction enables them to identify with and learn more about other young people; those like themselves as well as those who may seem different on the surface; and encourages them to think about how other people have handled peer-pressure issues.

Part B helps students recognize the confidence that Homer has in his own ability to succeed. When he studies advanced science and math on his own to reach his goal, he demonstrates tenacity; when he temporarily leaves school to work in the mines, he shows us that he loves and feels responsible for family members. If students have read the book Rocket Boys/October Sky or seen the movie can create Homer's graduation speech, showing that Miss Riley, Homer's father and Werner von Braun were significant influences on Homer, but each in a different way.

Part C encourages students to identify leaders in the world of science and role models in their own lives. It gives them the opportunity to explore with their classmates whether certain qualities generate universal admiration.

Additional Activities
Have students read Hickam's autobiography Rocket Boys, on which the film is based. Then have them compare book and film with emphasis on how a particular scene was handled through script, photography, lighting and acting.

Suggest students interview school or community leaders they admire to discover whether and how these individuals were influenced by their own role models. Students can write up their interviews and turn them into a collection of leadership profiles.

Each generation has its own heroes.

Activity Three offers students the opportunity to compare notes with older family members on the differences and similarities between the heroes of their generation and those of today. In addition, students can share with older family members their hopes and fears about growing up and finding a place in the world. The activity encourages students to see that each generation faces similar problems in the process of maturing, although different times might produce different approaches to dealing with these dilemmas.

Additional Activities
Have students create a scenario in which a parent and child are in conflict over an important decision (for example, perhaps the student wants to become a musician because it appears to be a lucrative and "cool" way to make a living, while the parent's hopes rest on the student going to college and pursuing a "serious" career). Then have students act out the scenario and discuss the validity of each side.

Have students survey their classmates and the adults in their families and community as to the qualities they most admire in individuals. Then have them compare the lists and note the similarities and differences between generations.

Assign a student to write and perhaps illustrate a story suitable for small children in which the central character must make a pivotal decision.

Ask students to research and report to their classmates on the latitude various cultures permit young people in making pivotal decisions about life choices.

To further students' education about science, Star Station One and Challenger Learning Centers offer additional resources. Star Station One is an educational outreach program presented by participating museums in your area. It keeps you in touch with the exciting story of the construction of the International Space Station as it unfolds over the next few years to become "A new Star on the Horizon." The program follows the ISS assembly sequence as it promotes traditional educational concepts using the backdrop of human space flight and adventures of the actual astronaut crew members involved. To "be there" and "be connected", visit the Mission Control museum in your area to participate in a Star Station One experience. You may obtain their locations and phone number by visiting the Star Station One Web site at

Go into "orbit" with Challenger Center! Discover comets, repair satellites, colonize Mars and more! Hundreds of thousands of students fly simulated space missions at Challenger Learning Centers across North America each year, and thousands more participate in classroom-based education programs. Challenger Center is a not-for-profit educational organization dedicated to inspiring young people and their teachers to explore science, math and technology. Visit our Web site at to learn more about Challenger Center and our educational activities.

Another Time, Another Place
The film October Sky is a true story based on Rocket Boys, the autobiography of Homer Hickam Jr., a former NASA engineer at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. The story takes place in the 1950s in a small West Virginia mining town;a place where every son was expected to repeat his father's harsh life in the coal mines. As a high school student, Homer was excited by the space program. But when he dreamt of moving beyond the grim and narrow world of the mines, he was told in no uncertain terms, "Rocket scientists don't come from mining towns." Not discouraged, Homer persisted by battling the odds and entering his rocket into the national science fair, knowing that winning would be his ticket to a college scholarship and a job in the space program.

PART A The film begins in 1957, when the space race became an important national focus. What do you know about life in the fifties? In the space below, fill out the chart comparing popular entertainment trends, political and scientific events, and prominent names that you associate with that time. You can ask family and friends who lived during the fifties, or look at newspapers and magazines from that period. Since each generation is shaped by the events of its time, take a look at your world today and make another list of corresponding current trends, names and events.

The Fifties ... Today
Select two contrasting names or events from the lists you have made, for example, Elvis (the fifties), Backsteet Boys (today). Write a short paragraph to explain what the differences between them might tell us about their respective times.

During the fifties, hostile and difficult relations existed between our nation and the Soviet Union. Find out what is meant by the Cold War. List your definition below.

The film October Sky depicts the life of a coal miner as both difficult and dangerous. After seeing the film, jot down some scenes in the space below that you think are particularly effective in describing that life.

Give a presentation to your classmates on life in a coal-mining town, including such issues as black lung disease, the hazardous working conditions, and the attempts of the miners to organize. Try to find photographs of miners and mining towns to accompany your presentation.

The film October Sky depicts a series of events that leads young Homer Hickam Jr. into a life of science and involvement with the space program. The film is based on a true story, but its exploration of such issues as the importance of a sense of belonging, self-esteem and the approval of others place it in the company of significant works of ³coming-of-age² fiction throughout the centuries.

PART A Books offer valuable insights into life's lessons, opportunities and problems. Many works of fiction explore the "coming of age" of young men and women. Choose a "coming-of-age" story you have read and write three incidents from the story as examples of the character's increasing maturity. Explain how each one demonstrates this change. It is also clear that Homer matures through the course of the film. After seeing the film, do the same for Homer.

Title of book: ________________________
Author of book: _______________________
Example 1

Example 2

Homer in the BOOK Rocket Boys/October Sky
Example 1

Example 2

PART B In the movie, Homer's efforts to make the football team as a stepping stone to getting a college scholarship show his courage and tenacity. Although he fails in sports, he quickly realizes that the field of science and rocketry can offer him an even better opportunity to build an exciting, satisfying future. His ultimate success is based on a combination of his own admirable qualities, teamwork and leadership, as well as the inspiration of a caring teacher and the work of scientist Werner von Braun. Write a brief paragraph below explaining what you think are Homer's most valuable qualities. Homer succeeds because he:

Imagine that Homer has been asked to speak at his graduation. He has decided to talk about the three adults who have had the most influence on his life thus far. Write Homer's speech for him on a separate piece of paper. Be sure to explain how the qualities possessed by each of these adults differ and what each did to influence him.

PART C With your classmates, make a list of individuals from the sciences whom you most admire, and have a discussion on the qualities these individuals possess. Then think about one person who has influenced you in an important way. On a separate piece of paper, write an autobiographical sketch in which you bring this person to life and explain how he or she helped you to make a significant change in your life.

October Sky has much to say about both the complexities of family relationships and the delight in scientific exploration and inquiry that results in breakthroughs that affect each of our lives. Homer's father, who has spent his life working in the mines, is proud of what he does, and is disappointed in his son for not wanting to do the same. He thinks that Homer and his friends are wasting their time on their rocket projects and he resents Homer's adoration of noted rocket scientist Werner von Braun.

PART A Imagine that, like Homer, you could correspond with any scientist living today. Who would that person be? _____________________________________

What questions would you ask him or her?

PART B Interview older family members about whether they were ever expected to "follow in the footsteps" of other family members. How did they feel about it? Did they follow tradition or take off on their own? What do they think now of the decisions they made then?

PART C Ask a parent to describe a person who had great influence over him or her during the period of transition from youth to adulthood. Who was the person and what lasting influences did that person have on your family member? Has that relationship had an effect on your life?

PART D Interview family members to learn which twentieth-century scientists they believe have had the greatest impact on their lives. Bring your findings back to class. Together with your classmates, put together a chart to see whom your class rates as the most influential scientific figures of this century.

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