Several years ago, A great portion of the movie "October Sky" was filmed in East Tennessee. The movie, based on the autobiographical novel "The Rocket Boys" by Homer Hickam, was the story of the author and his teenage friends as they built their own home-based rocket system back in the mid-50's West Virginia mining town of Coalfield. Homer was inspired to start building rockets at the first sight of Sputnik flying overhead - while others in the town were paranoid about what this might mean to their's and the country's security, Homer saw only the wonder and promise of space travel and rocketry.
I knew several people who got parts in the movie, and a number of the scenes were filmed in places I was familiar with - a large exhibition building at our state fairgrounds, and the exterior of my Junior High School. I seem to recall the movie did fairly well, and was critically well-received.
Some time after the movie came out I bought Hickam's follow up novel, "The Coalwood Way". For some reason it sat on my bookshelf unread until, lacking anything else to read, I picked it up last month and started in. Hickam calls it "not a sequel, but an equal", meaning the action of the novel takes place more or less at about the same time as "The Rocket Boys". This set of novels outlines Hickam's hard work to get him where he always wanted to be - working as an engineer for NASA.
I don't know what compelled me to pick it up, but I'm glad I did. I'm also halfway through re-watching October Sky on video.
Sometimes I wonder if that young boy dream of flying in space still exists today like it used to. When I was young, it was a major source of thought and dreaming - accelerated by such things as Star Wars and Star Trek. I wanted nothing more than to somehow get into space. Even today, I still would go in a moment's notice if given the chance - dangers fully accepted.
So how do kids these day view space travel? Do they too yearn to slip the surly bonds of Earth? Or is it more important to get the high score on GTA III? Or go see the latest Farrelly Brothers movie? Or score a hit? Or give their boyfriends/girlfriends HIV? Or shoot up their classmates and teachers in a haze of goth angst?
What do the Homer Hickams of today dream of?
There's a corollary to this. In today's Knoxville News Sentinel (ominously absent of course of any Columbia news) the weekly column of Family Advice Giver James Dobson mentions that too many of today's youths who come from the inner city are products of broken homes, victims of abuse and neglect, sleeping in bathtubs to avoid random drive-by shootings. He doesn't mention it, but kids in the suburbs also suffer neglect, abuse, and can be ignored by their otherwise successful parents. I'm certain there is probably a boy or girl alive today who, had they been nurtered properly by loving parents, would have someday cured cancer, perfected cold fusion, ended world hunger or composed the world's most beautiful music since Mozart. These kids aren't given a chance to dream, because they're taught they shouldn't dream - that dreams are for the weak. Only the strongest survive - the ones able to best their rivals today get to move on to that next level, and the others die. On the streets, in the hood, in the gated communities, it's the same - children everywhere are denied their chance to dream.
I desparately want my children to dream. I want them to see wonder in the world, and to know they can change things - they have to have courage, yes. They have to take chances and they must take risks. They may not be popular, they may not fit in with the crowds, but the reward is so wonderful and the need for dreamers is so great that the risk is always worth it. It's worth it. I actively look for ways to make my kids see the wonder - I only hope I can open the gates for them and let them go through.
It's ironic I finished Hickam's novel only about a week ago and all this is fresh on my mind. It's equally ironic that in a span of six days, spread out over four decades, we have seen the deaths of seventeen astronauts. Each of these brave men and women dreamed of space when they were kids, they saw the worthiness and value of space travel and acted on their dreams. Each has their own story, of course, but they all grew up being allowed to dream, and encouraged to do so. And for that I am grateful, and in their debt.
Do we have the courage to do the same for our children, as their parents did for them?
Could my son, or my daughter, or someone else's son or daughter be the first human to step foot on Mars?
Dream a little dream with me.
UPDATE: Rich is teaching his kids to dream and now one wants to be an astrophysicist. Anyone else?