'Rocket Boys' Memoir Aims for Broadway as Musical

NEW YORK ? A beloved memoir about a boy?s youth spentbuilding homemade rockets is taking a musical turn in a new performance thatcould be headed for Broadway.

The musical, called "Rocket Boys" after the bookof the same title by engineer Homer Hickam, Jr., premiered Monday night duringa staged reading for an industry audience ?in New York and is poised to touraround the country. The story was also made famous in the 1999 UniversalPictures film "October Sky" starring Jake Gyllenhaal.

"The play is much closer to the book than the moviewas," Hickam told SPACE.com. "It's kind of interesting, all the differentvariations on the story that have occurred. 'Rocket Boys' just has a life ofits own."

Memoir on print, film and stage

Hickam published his memoir in 1998, and it quickly becamepopular, reaching No. 1 on the New York Times bestsellers list.

The story detailed Hickam's efforts to buildrockets while in high school in a rural coal-mining town in West Virginia,shortly after Russia launched Sputnik, the first man-made satellite to orbitthe 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 timeand a place that just seems to grab everybody," Hickam said. "Whythat is is always going to be a mystery to its author."

Hickam went on to go to college and study engineering, andultimately realized a lifelong goal when he was hired to work for NASA in 1981.

"I was absolutely thrilled," Hickam said. "Icame on just when the space shuttle started flying."

Hickam worked at NASA's Marshall Spaceflight Center inHuntsville, Ala., helping to design the computer system for Spacelab, areusable science laboratory that flew on the space shuttle. Later he helpedtrain astronauts for spacewalks inside the giant pool called the NeutralBuoyancy Lab.

Memories blast off

Hickam's memoir began as a short article about his rocket-buildingdays commissioned by Smithsonian magazine that turned out to be hugelypopular with readers.

"The second that came out, my phone almost melteddown," he recalled. "I was astonished by this reaction."

He soon parlayed the success into a book deal, and publishedthe memoir with Delacorte Press.

Hickam said he was initially resistant to the idea ofturning his memoir into a musical. He was sent a proposal from the playwritingteam that included a script and a CD of possible songs.

"I have received many such proposals and have rejectedthem all," he said. "I almost threw this one away too. Then I put theCD in my player and I was just absolutely blown away by the music. It was soon-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 rocketboys for setting off increasingly ambitious rockets. For the industry reading,Sonny was played by the play's director, Carl Anthony Tramon. Veteran screenand stage actor Robert Picardo("Star Trek Voyager", "Stargate") acted the role of a localnewspaper reporter.

The play premiered in Huntsville in May 2008 at theMerrimack Theatre.

Hickam said he was excited for his story to reach a newaudience through the play, and hoped to inspire more young people to pursuescience.

"This book and the movie have started so many rocketgroups," Hickam said. "I'm constantly cautioning everybody, 'Don?tblow yourself up!"

He has also been told by many astronauts that the film"October Sky" is a favorite for spaceflyers to watch before theylaunch on a mission.

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Clara Moskowitz
Assistant Managing Editor

Clara Moskowitz is a science and space writer who joined the Space.com team in 2008 and served as Assistant Managing Editor from 2011 to 2013. Clara has a bachelor's degree in astronomy and physics from Wesleyan University, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She covers everything from astronomy to human spaceflight and once aced a NASTAR suborbital spaceflight training program for space missions. Clara is currently Associate Editor of Scientific American. To see her latest project is, follow Clara on Twitter.