SUBJECTS — Space Exploration; U.S./1945-1991 & West Virginia; Science- Technology;
SOCIAL-EMOTIONAL LEARNING — Parenting; Father/Son; Mother/Son; Breaking Out; Friendship;
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS — Responsibility; Caring.
AGE: 10+; MPAA Rating — PG for language, brief teen sensuality, and alcohol use, and for some thematic elements;
Drama; 1999; 108 minutes; Color. Available from Amazon.com.
MOVIE WORKSHEETS & STUDENT HANDOUTS
TWM offers the following movie worksheets to keep students’ minds on the film and to focus their attention on the lessons to be learned from the movie.
Teachers can modify the movie worksheets to fit the needs of each class. See also TWM’s Historical Fiction in Film Cross-Curricular Homework Project and Movies as Literature Homework Project.
Additional ideas for lesson plans for this movie can be found at TWM’s guide to Lesson Plans Using Film Adaptations of Novels, Short Stories or Plays.
Inspired by the launch of Sputnik (October, 1957), a high school student in a coal town in West Virginia decides to make his own rockets. Despite his father’s initial opposition, Homer and his “outsider” friends persist and succeed. They have the support of their science teacher and Homer’s mother, who is determined that her son will not end up as a miner. Against all odds, the boys win the national science fair with an entry describing their rockets. All of the boys go to college, something unusual in coal country at the time. Homer becomes an engineer with NASA.
October Sky is a charming tale and the boys’ success is inspiring. The movie is taken from an autobiographical novel by Homer H. Hickam originally entitled Rocket Boys. The book has been republished under the same name as the film.
October 4, 1957 — Sputnik destroyed U.S. complacency
SELECTED AWARDS & CAST
Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper, Laura Dern, Chris Owen.
BENEFITS OF THE MOVIE
This film can be used to illustrate an important event in American history, the launch by Soviet Russia of the first space satellite. It can spark or enhance interest in space science, engineering, or math. It can inspire children to work hard to fulfill their dreams. October Sky demonstrates the rewards of working toward a goal against daunting odds. The movie shows the positive influence teachers can have on their students, a mother’s support for her child’s dreams, the love of a son for his father and his need for his father’s approval, as well as the value of people who are different from most of us. The fact that the film is based on a true story adds emphasis to these lessons.
MINOR. The movie contains mild profanity used in stressful situations. The film alters the true story in a number of ways. See discussion below.
Make sure your child understands that in almost every respect this is a true story. Review the points made in Before Watching the Movie. When the movie is over, review with your child what is true and what isn’t true. See After Watching the Movie. When your child is ready to read the book, get it for him or her from the library. It’s better than the movie.
The movie teaches important lessons in social-emotional learning. It shows that a child with a dream can go far beyond family expectations. This concept is stressed in the film and parents can reinforce it by commenting on the theme or by giving examples of people known to the child who have done something with their lives that was much different than what was expected of them. Also stressed in the movie is the concept that children can prevail over daunting odds. A parental comment about how great it was that these kids didn’t give up will help stress this idea. In addition, the movie tells us that most often excellence is the result of a community effort or at least comes with the help of many people, as it did in this case. Parents can explore this issue by asking and helping their child to answer the Quick Discussion Question. See also the Social-Emotional Learning Discussion Questions and the Moral-Ethical Emphasis Discussion Questions.
USING THE MOVIE IN THE CLASSROOM
Before Watching the Movie:
The following will greatly enhance a child’s understanding and appreciation of this movie:
- From 1946 to 1991, the U.S. was locked in a Cold War with Russian Communism. The Soviets claimed that Communism was the wave of the future and that it would bury capitalism, democracy, and the United States. Russia and Communism were a serious threat to the U.S. and the Western democracies.
- In the 1950s, the United States believed that its technology was the best in the world. We had more cars than any country in the world. We had the best televisions, refrigerators, record players and a host of other consumer goods. At that time, U.S. factories were building these products. Japan was still recovering from WWII and China was still undeveloped. We had been first with the atomic bomb and first with the hydrogen bomb. Our airplanes and jet fighters were the best in the world. We thought that our military equipment was better than the Russians’. Americans took comfort in the belief that we had the best scientists and engineers that ever lived.
- The belief in American technical superiority changed in 1958. Sputnik was the first man-made satellite to orbit the earth. It was sent up, not by the Americans, but by the Russians. Americans looked up to see a Communist star traversing the heavens and realized that in the important arena of space, our technology was inferior to that of the Russians. People worried about what would happen if the Russians put an atomic bomb on one of their satellites. This insecurity deepened as the first several U.S. efforts to orbit a satellite failed miserably. Rockets exploded on the launch pads or they crashed soon after lift-off. All of this occurred live on world-wide television. It was more than embarrassing. It was frightening.
- For years, the Soviets led the space race, hoisting larger payloads into space than the U.S., including the first animal in space and the first man in space. All of this occurred during one of the most distrustful and competitive periods of the Cold War. The launch of Sputnik shook the United States to its roots.
- October Sky shows one boy’s reaction to this event. The story told by this movie is pretty much true.
- The movie takes place in a coal town in West Virginia. Coal towns existed for the sole purpose of mining coal. Everything in the town was owned by the coal company: the stores, the church, the schools and the houses in which the miners lived. If a miner was incapacitated and could no longer work, his family was forced to move out of their company-owned house, which meant leaving town. Often, when the father was injured, the children had to work in the mines to pay the rent and remain eligible to live in company-owned housing. If a miner died in the mines, his family had a very short time (usually two weeks) to move. The coal company didn’t want the grim reminders of the dangers of the mine to be around too long. Coalwood, where Homer lived, was one of the better company towns, but it was still subject to harsh practices by the mine owners.
- In a mine, coal dust pollutes the air and literally covers everything. A common ailment among miners is black lung disease (pneumoconiosis) caused by inhaling coal dust. Homer’s father was suffering from this disease. The mine owners refused to compensate miners for this occupational hazard, so the Federal Government stepped in and set up a health and worker’s compensation plan for the miners.
December 6, 1957: Two seconds after launch
Vanguard was four feet off the pad. Thrust
ceased, it crumpled and then exploded.
After Watching the Movie:
It was very unusual for any boys from Homer’s home town to go to college, other than on a sports scholarship. However, each of the Rocket Boys graduated from college and Homer Hickam fulfilled his dream by becoming an engineer for NASA.
The U.S. eventually pulled equal to the Russians in the space race and was victorious in the Cold War. Russia abandoned Communism in 1991 and has adopted a capitalist model. It is no longer a superpower that competes with the U.S. Space exploration is now a cooperative international effort. The Russians are making money by charging very rich people (often Americans) millions of dollars for a trip into space in a Russian space capsule.
Homer Hickam’s book, The Rocket Boys, is better than the movie and contains a number of wonderful vignettes that are not in the film. For example, as the boys built more complex rockets, Homer realized that they needed to learn calculus to take the next steps in rocket design. Homer and the science teacher convinced the principal of the high school to offer a new course in calculus. The enrollment was limited to six people, the exact number of boys involved in the effort to make the rockets. No one expected anyone else at the school to sign up for the class.
However, the girl that Homer had a crush on signed up too, and since Homer’s grades in math were the worst of any of the applicants, he was excluded from the class. The principal at this point was not sure that the Rocket Boys were really up to any good and called them “bombers,” a reference to their first effort which had blown up Homer’s mother’s fence. The principal would not increase the enrollment in the class by one person to allow Homer to take it. Initially, Homer felt that his dreams of a career in rocketry were over, but in the depths of his depression, he found a calculus text on the bookshelf at home. There were notes in the book in his father’s handwriting showing that his father, who had never gone to college but who was called upon to supervise engineers, had taught himself calculus. Homer began to study the text and the other members of the club helped him. Homer learned calculus without the class, to his own amazement and that of his teachers and the principal.
The film does not present a sympathetic view of the United Mine Workers of America (UMW) local in Coalwood. This is a departure from the book. While Homer’s father was the manager of the mine and a company man through and through, and while he believed that the reasons for the strike were trivial, it is not clear that he was right. Moreover, the Union men supported the Rocket Boys long before Homer’s father did and they were instrumental in facing down the company when it wanted to shut down the boys’ test firing range (it was on a massive expanse of tailings from the mine). Overall, the UMW has made an important positive contribution to U.S. history, forcing the coal operators to make the mines safer and to pay a living wage. For a film that shows some of the difficulties, the miners had in organizing their union and gaining recognition from the mine owners, see Matewan.
Also in the book, and not in the film, is a clear explanation of how the Rocket Boys got the precision nozzles necessary to fly their rockets. After Homer’s father had sent Mr. Bikovsky (the first machinist to help the Rocket Boys) into the mine as punishment, the town coalesced behind them. Homer then convinced the supervisor of another mine machine shop to make the nozzles and Homer’s father permitted company time and company materials to be used. A fundamental truth illuminated by this story is that to perform amazing feats, not only do people need to be committed and work hard, they often need the support of their communities. Moreover, they need to seek out and get that help. This is especially true in today’s complex environment.
The sequence in which Homer quits high school and goes to work in the mine is fictional but rings true from a former time when the mine owners provided no benefits for the miners or their families. (The real Homer Hickam did work in the mine during the summer after his first year of college, but he was not forced to take the job.) Homer Hickam had this to say about the movie and about this incident:
It was great fun to see Rocket Boys become the movie “October Sky.” Of course, I thought they should have just filmed it exactly the way I wrote it down in my book but Hollywood has its ways, and they’re not generally the same as book-writers. But only good things have come of it, I’d have to say, even though I didn’t like that the movie showed me quitting [high] school. I would have never quit school. My parents would have lived in a tree before they would have ever let that happen! But so many people across the world have been inspired by the movie. A lot of astronauts even watch it the night before they climb aboard the shuttle. Now, that’s pretty special! [Quoted from Bookwire Speaks with Homer Hickam.]
The black machinist tells Homer that he flew with the “Red Tails.” This is a reference to the “Red Tailed Angels” of the all African-American 332nd Fighter Group. In the Second World War, the 332nd was the only Fighter Group which never lost a bomber to enemy planes, thereby destroying the prejudice that blacks could not fly modern fighters. See Learning Guide to “The Tuskegee Airmen“.
Notes on Coal Mining
There are two principal methods of mining coal. Strip mining coal close to the surface is the most economical, but also the most environmentally destructive. Power equipment (power shovels or drag lines) removes the earth and rock to expose the coal. The coal is then broken up and loaded onto trucks or railroad cars.
When the coal is not located close to the surface, a method called underground or deep mining is used. A shaft is dug to the location of the coal seam, either vertically, on a slant or, if the coal is located in a mountain, horizontally. The coal is cut, using machines or controlled explosions. The key to deep mining is controlling cave-ins, dispersing gas, particularly methane and carbon dioxide, and suppressing coal dust. Pillars of coal are left to help support the roof. Steel beams are placed across the roof to prevent the rock from falling onto the miners. In some mines the roof behind the coal face is allowed to collapse as the face moves forward along the seam. Huge fans and complicated ventilation systems are used to draw out the gases and bring in clean air. Coal dust is highly combustible and must be strictly controlled. Limestone dust is sprayed in the mine to keep the coal dust in check. The work in the deep mines is automated as much as possible. Continuous mining machines combine the separate steps of cutting, drilling, blasting and loading the coal at rates as high as 10.8 metric tons of coal per minute. The coal is then transferred by electric trolley to the surface where it is taken to preparation plants. There it is screened, washed, sorted by size, and crushed before shipment.
2. Should the people in the early U.S. space program have been deterred by their many failures to launch rockets?
Daniel S. Goldin, former administrator of NASA, said that one should never be deterred by failure but that if you learned from your failures they would be the building blocks for later success. Commencement address to the 2001 graduating class of the Engineering School, University of California, Berkeley.
3. What would have happened to Homer’s family if no one had been working in the mine even though his father was still recuperating from injuries he had received saving the lives of other miners?
If no one in the family was working in the mine, the family would have been evicted from its home by the coal company. This was true even if the miner was still recuperating from injuries received in a mine accident. (We don’t know if the mine owners applied the same standard to management employees like Homer’s father. But it did apply to the miners, the vast majority of the company’s employees.) If a miner died or was too injured to work, the mine owners would evict the family. This meant forcing them to move out of town, since the mine company owned everything in the town. The family would generally have to move within a few weeks of the injury or the death of the miner. The company didn’t want any grim reminders to stay around and spook the other miners.
4. What did the Rocket Boys prove by their success?
That you can achieve great things if you put your mind to it. Success and achievement can come from very unlikely places and you have to keep an open mind about people.
PARENTING – MOTHER/SON – FATHER/SON
1. Everyone in Homer’s family wanted to get out of Coalwood except his father. (Remember the mural the mother was painting throughout the film.) How did each member of the family deal with this desire?
The mother submitted. The brother excelled in football, a way to get out approved and accepted by the community. Homer went his own way.
2. Review Homer’s father’s feelings about his son change as the film progresses. Describe how Homer’s father felt about his youngest son at each of the following points in the movie:
(a) when Homer begins experimenting with rockets; after Homer had gone to work in the mine;
(b) when Homer quits the mine; and
(c) at the end of the film.
[When students respond ask them to illustrate their point with direct reference to the film.]
3. Identify the strengths and weaknesses of Homer’s father as a parent.
The weakness is that Homer’s father took much too long to see his son as an individual who would go his own way and that that way might not be the way his father went. The father obviously loved his son and eventually came to support his efforts to be an engineer. When students respond ask them to illustrate their point with direct reference to the film.
4. Cite some examples of nurturing between individuals and in terms of the community as a whole.
Almost everyone in this movie, and certainly all the major characters nurture others. Make sure that the class sees the nurturing qualities in the father and in the members of the community in general. The father nurtured Homer when he went into the mine. In fact, as shown by the book, the community was always supportive of the Rocket Boys.
5. How does friendship help Homer break away from the path of working in the coal mine? What was the strongest act of friendship shown in this film?
Individual responses may vary. Any well-supported response will be adequate. When students respond ask them to illustrate their point with direct reference to the film.
MORAL-ETHICAL EMPHASIS (CHARACTER COUNTS)
Discussion Questions Relating to Ethical Issues will facilitate the use of this film to teach ethical principles and critical viewing. Additional questions are set out below.
(Do what you are supposed to do; Persevere: keep on trying!; Always do your best; Use self-control; Be self-disciplined; Think before you act — consider the consequences; Be accountable for your choices)
1. To persevere is to continue on a course of action despite difficulties and lack of success. Cite examples of perseverance in this film.
In this movie, the Rocket Boys kept on trying to perfect their rockets despite their initial lack of success. The theme of perseverance also relates to the U.S. space program which, despite its failures at the beginning, eventually triumphed over the Russians in most areas of space exploration. See also the quote from Daniel Goldin, former NASA administrator, in suggested response to Discussion Question #2.
2. Put yourself in the position of Homer in this story. Your father is badly injured and cannot work. Someone must work in the mine if the family is to avoid eviction from company housing and being forced to move out of the town. Your brother is on track to escape to college on a football scholarship, but he must finish school. He will never have another chance to go to college. If you go to work in the mine you will probably do well and rise to a position in management, just like your father. What would you do if you were in Homer’s position?
This question tests the limits of responsibility and caring. Homer and his brother did have some responsibility to help the family keep a home. This didn’t require one of them to work only in the mine, but they did have to shoulder the burden or at least part of the burden their father could no longer carry. Homer, because he cared for his brother, didn’t want him to miss the chance to go to college on an athletic scholarship. There is also a sense that Homer knew that, while going into the mine was risky, his father had made a good career there. Homer would probably also rise to a manager’s position. Given these facts, what Homer did was the most ethical thing to do based upon his responsibility to his family and his love for his brother. There are three other interesting points about this subplot. First, there are limits to what a child can be asked to do for the family. If going into the mine had been a complete dead-end for Homer, the answer to this question would be different. See, e.g., The Glass Menagerie. Second, the real Homer Hickam worked in the mine only for a summer during college. This subplot is one of the few parts of the movie that didn’t really happen and he disliked it. He commented, referring to the situation in which the Homer Hickam character in the movie dropped out of high school: “My parents would have lived in a tree before they would have ever let that happen!” This fact illustrates that there are many situations in which both parents and children have a responsibility. Third, compare the scene in which Homer must put his dreams aside and work in the mine to It’s A Wonderful Life, in which the leading character gave up his dreams of a career as an architect in New York so that his brother could attend college and yet he lived a “wonderful life”.
3. Homer’s brother was set to get a football scholarship which was the only way that, in the past, kids had gotten out of Coalwood and into the larger world. Did Homer’s older brother do the right thing to let Homer work in the coal mines so that the brother could continue on to college?
Yes. There is no responsibility not to accept the gifts or moral conduct of others. However, Homer’s brother did owe Homer a great debt.
(Be kind; Be compassionate and show you care; Express gratitude; Forgive others; Help people in need)
4. Name the characters in this film who honored the concept of “caring” and describe what they did that leads you to that conclusion.
The mother, because she always wanted what was best for her sons. The teacher who encouraged the Rocket Boys. The Rocket Boys, who unanimously chose Homer to go to the science fair. The Union members, including the machinists, and the people in Coalwood who encouraged and helped the Rocket Boys. Homer’s father, who finally came round. (See question below for more on Homer’s father.)
5. Who, in this film, had the most trouble practicing the concept of caring? What were the reasons? How did he or she resolve it?
Our vote goes to Homer’s father. At the beginning, he wanted Homer to work in the mine and eventually become a manager, like he was. He saw a lot of himself in Homer which is probably why he was so strict with the boy. When Homer started to branch out onto his own path, the father felt rejected and insecure. These are not appropriate feelings for a parent. Parents should recognize that children are not born to adopt their parents’ values wholesale, or to follow in their footsteps. Children must be allowed and encouraged to find the life that is right for them. That is the true gift of a caring parent. Eventually, Homer’s father endorsed the Rocket Boys’ efforts. In so doing, he recognized and fulfilled the love he had for his son. Homer’s father was forced to choose between his dream that Homer would work with him in the mine and what was best for his son. After some delay, he made the right choice.
ASSIGNMENTS, PROJECTS & ACTIVITIES
Have students research and write a paper on the size and future of the coal industry in the United States? What are the threats to the industry? Are there still coal towns?
BRIDGES TO READING
The book October Sky (original title: Rocket Boys) is excellent for advanced adolescent readers. It contains significant additional details concerning Mr. Hickam’s experience and life in the U.S. in the 1950s. Rocket Boys is part of a trilogy. The other volumes are The Coalwood Way, which focuses on the Rocket Boys’ last Christmas together in 1959, and Sky of Stone, which describes the summer of 1961 when Homer worked in the mine after his freshman year in college.
LINKS TO THE INTERNET
- See Homer Hickam’s excellent website at HomerHickam.com; it contains an entire section with features designed for educators;
- The NASA Website has a section for students and another for teachers;
- Sputnik and the Launch of the Space Age;
- The Times Looks Back: Sputnik (This is a gateway to a series of articles about Sputnik and its effect on the U.S.);
- Sputnik’s Legacy; and
- Vanguard – A History.
This Learning Guide was last updated on February 10, 2012.