NEW YORK ? A beloved memoir about a boy?s youth spent building homemade rockets is taking a musical turn in a new performance that could be headed for Broadway.
The musical, called "Rocket Boys" after the book of the same title by engineer Homer Hickam, Jr., premiered Monday night during a staged reading for an industry audience ?in New York and is poised to tour around the country. The story was also made famous in the 1999 Universal Pictures film "October Sky" starring Jake Gyllenhaal.
"The play is much closer to the book than the movie was," Hickam told SPACE.com. "It's kind of interesting, all the different variations on the story that have occurred. 'Rocket Boys' just has a life of its own."
Memoir on print, film and stage
Hickam published his memoir in 1998, and it quickly became popular, reaching No. 1 on the New York Times bestsellers list.
The story detailed Hickam's efforts to build rockets while in high school in a rural coal-mining town in West Virginia, shortly after Russia launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite to orbit the Earth. Hickam also explores his fraught relationship with his family, especially his father, the superintendent of local coal mine.
"This is the story of a family, of a people, and a time and a place that just seems to grab everybody," Hickam said. "Why that is is always going to be a mystery to its author."
Hickam went on to go to college and study engineering, and ultimately realized a lifelong goal when he was hired to work for NASA in 1981.
"I was absolutely thrilled," Hickam said. "I came on just when the space shuttle started flying."
Hickam worked at NASA's Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Ala., helping to design the computer system for Spacelab, a reusable science laboratory that flew on the space shuttle. Later he helped train astronauts for spacewalks inside the giant pool called the Neutral Buoyancy Lab.
Memories blast off
Hickam's memoir began as a short article about his rocket-building days commissioned by Smithsonian magazine that turned out to be hugely popular with readers.
"The second that came out, my phone almost melted down," he recalled. "I was astonished by this reaction."
He soon parlayed the success into a book deal, and published the memoir with Delacorte Press.
Hickam said he was initially resistant to the idea of turning his memoir into a musical. He was sent a proposal from the playwriting team that included a script and a CD of possible songs.
"I have received many such proposals and have rejected them all," he said. "I almost threw this one away too. Then I put the CD in my player and I was just absolutely blown away by the music. It was so on-the-money in terms of the spirit of the book."
The play features a young Hickam, nicknamed "Sonny," and three friends who become known locally as the rocket boys for setting off increasingly ambitious rockets. For the industry reading, Sonny was played by the play's director, Carl Anthony Tramon. Veteran screen and stage actor Robert Picardo ("Star Trek Voyager", "Stargate") acted the role of a local newspaper reporter.
The play premiered in Huntsville in May 2008 at the Merrimack Theatre.
Hickam said he was excited for his story to reach a new audience through the play, and hoped to inspire more young people to pursue science.
"This book and the movie have started so many rocket groups," Hickam said. "I'm constantly cautioning everybody, 'Don?t blow yourself up!"
He has also been told by many astronauts that the film "October Sky" is a favorite for spaceflyers to watch before they launch on a mission.
- Gallery ? Last Launch of Space Shuttle Atlantis
- Top 10 Fantasy Spaceships Becoming Reality
- Stacking Up the World's Tallest Rockets