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1999 by Ernest Lilley

Focus: Interview & Review
SFRevu Interview: Rocket Boy - Homer HickamBack to the Moon

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...we won't have true spaceships until we start using fission, fusion, or anti-matter drives that will have all the energy and power they need to move through space...

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The propulsion engineers out at Marshall Space Flight Center are champing at the bit to build these space drives. They can do it, they say, in a decade, with the proper emphasis and funding.

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My opinion is the government astro- nauts represent a failure in our space program. They're like a solid blue line between the rest of us and space...

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All of us just need to keep thumping these politicians over the head. We've been stuck with these old chemical rockets and the old ways of doing things for too long. Right now, we have as strong an economy as we're likely to have for a very, very long time. Now's the time to move, not dither. I say let's go!

top.gif (1909 bytes)Click on Back Issue Number to see what  we had to say about Homer Hickam's memoirs and the movie based on them.
Rocket Boys - SFRevu 3.1
October Sky  - SFRevu 3.2

 

SFRevu Interview: Homer H. Hickam, Jr. - Rocket Boy

If you know me, I've probably told you to read Rocket Boys, by Homer Hickam. SF author Allen Steele went home from a Con a few months back and got too sick to write, but not too sick to read. Remembering my words and that his sister had given him a copy he opened it up and found that the author had signed it...Homer being an Allen Steele fan. Allen is now feeling better, and is a Homer Hickam fan as well.

Homer's new book Back To The Moon is a fast paced Techno-Thriller, a great read on the beach, and just maybe a wake up call to mainstream America. I asked the former NASA engineer if he would answer some questions and faster than you can say "Americans should be out there making a home in space," He'd sent me some interesting thoughts for the issue on SF, politics, and NASA's role in spaceflight. - Ernest Lilley, Editor/SFRevu

SFRevu: In your memoir, Rocket Boys (renamed October Sky), you mentioned that you had been reading Science Fiction prior to the Sputnik Launch and when your mother asked you what Sputnik meant your reading stood you in good stead. That raises two questions for me. First, what was the first SF you remember reading, and how did it affect you?

Homer Hickam: The first SF book I remember reading was Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. I was in the third grade when I read it. I thought of it as an adventure tale rather than Sci-Fi. I read a lot of different things when I was in grade school: horse books, the Hardy Boys, the Bobbsey Twins, and whatever the teachers gave me to read. When I was in the sixth grade, I really got interested in Sci Fi. I started to go upstairs to the Junior High library to get whatever came in. Heinlein was one of the writers I read back then and also Asimov. I also got my mom to order me some Sci Fi books from her book club. I still have one of them. It's titled Triad, Three Complete Science Fiction Novels. It was written by A. E. van Vogt. The three titles are "The World of A," "The Voyage of the Space Beagle," and "Slan." I read the books for fun and to get a sense of the outside world as it might be when I grew up. They seemed to open up my mind to all the possibilities of the future.

SFR: Second, is SF useful for understanding the future?

HH: Oh yes. Engineers and scientists are pretty linear thinkers. We're quite good once we get going in a certain direction but leaps of imagination are better left to the wild-eyed writer, unfettered by mere physics and budget-crunching bean counters.

SFR: Your new book, Back To The Moon, uses a modified space shuttle to do the job, carrying a lander in the cargo bay. Just how hard would that be to actually do, assuming you didn't have to hijack a shuttle and refit an engine in orbit?

HH: Well, Jack Medaris, my hero, is a confident fellow with a do-or-die attitude. He does his analysis of what it would take to carry a lander (an inflatable) in the cargo bay including an engine for landing and just goes ahead and does it. NASA, on the other hand, would have to make a thousand studies to determine the correct procedures for such cargo, especially including safety criteria. The end result would be enough documents to fill a cargo bay, a hefty price tag, and years to make it all happen.

From my own analysis, however, I believe it would not be that difficult. I'd use a Spacelab pallet to stow the lander and probably the same carrier that's used to carry up the TRDRS comm sats [satellites] to stow the engine.

According to my vision in my novel, these two components are joined in space by space-walking astronauts. While the shuttle circles the moon, Jack Medaris takes the lander (I call it an Elsie, or LC, for landing craft) and tries to land on the moon much as the old Apollo Lems. The difference is in Back To The Moon, I use a single engine for both landing and taking off from the moon. Another difference is, unlike poor Jack, the Apollo astronauts didn't have to contend with killer sats left over from the Strategic Defense Initiative (Star Wars) program! After he is attacked, and Jack is stranded, I really had to get innovative to figure out a way to get him back up to the shuttle!

SFR: What's the next book?

HH: There's no shortage of writing projects. At this moment, I'm working on a sequel to Rocket Boys. Actually, it's what I call an "equal," the story of the last Christmas the rocket boys spent in Coalwood. It's an expansion of a chapter in Rocket Boys that I took out because it was too long and I felt it was a great story all by itself. I'm calling the new book A Coalwood Christmas. It should be out September, 2000. I've also been asked to write several children's books about spaceflight. I'm considering it. It would certainly be fun to do.

I've also got a scuba adventure book nearly done (I'm a scuba instructor).

SFR: Is Back To The Moon optioned for film yet?

HH: Not yet. My agent has several serious offers, though. He's working on it.

SFR: I got hung up on the DC-X when it first came out. A spaceship that could go from Earth to Orbit (and beyond) the way "God and Heinlein" intended. For some reason the spaceplane notion bugs me. What do you know about the demise of the program, and what's your take on the next best way to get into orbit?

HH: The DC-X that flew, of course, was not designed to go into orbit. It was a testbed primarily of the hardware and software it would take to have a rocket that could take off and land vertically without the hundreds of ground controllers it now takes with the shuttle. From that standpoint, although it toppled over on its final test due to a landing gear glitch, it was a resounding success. Still, such "tail-landers" probably won't make the cut in the immediate single-stage-to-orbit (SSTO) derby. The problem with them is that they have to carry enough propellant to make it into orbit, maneuver while there, and then come back and land. Compared to winged SSTO's which simply glide to a landing, they're inefficient. Of course, so are wings on a spaceship.

SSTO is the holy grail of rocketry today. NASA's X-33 (and the follow-on Venture Star) lifting body SSTO has the inside track of all the designs and I think it has some chance of success although its aerospike engines are having some problems. Of course, what you have to consider is all these SSTO concepts are not true spaceships at all. They use rockets occasionally but for the most part, they're drifters and gliders. They're sort of like what submarines were back in World War II, not true submarines but actually submersibles that had to come up to the surface often to recharge their batteries. We didn't have true submarines until they got nuclear power plants. Similarly, we won't have true spaceships until we start using fission, fusion, or anti-matter drives that will have all the energy and power they need to move through space.

SFR: I loved Rocket Boys. Though I'm a tad younger than you, it reminded me of my own dreams and the excitement of actually getting in there and working with the technology I'd read about. I also noted that both our mothers provided a certain amount of incentive to get up and do something with our dreams. Are kids today grabbing hold of dreams or are they just watching them on TV?

HH: The kids I've met since Rocket Boys was published and October Sky was released have been great! They seem to be filled with the same spirit of adventure I had growing up. All they need is the challenge to make their dreams come true. That's where we adults come in. We should as a country be providing them the tools to make it all happen. To me, that means we should be engaged in accomplishing great things including the true exploration of space and the opening up of the solar system. To do that, we need to begin right away to build advanced propulsion systems. It makes me cringe sometimes when a young person tells me he or she wants to be an astronaut. To me, that means they want to be part of the select 200 down in Houston. My opinion is the government astronauts represent a failure in our space program. They're like a solid blue line between the rest of us and space and I think their monopoly of spaceflight should end. I believe we should all be astronauts by now simply by buying a ticket or joining a company engaged in commerce along the space frontier. That's not going to happen until we build these new propulsion drives.

SFR: I liked October Sky (the movie version of Rocket Boys) and hope you were happy with it. I'm sure you lost control of the whole thing about the time you sold the rights but I think everyone came out tolerable well, and I especially enjoyed the film clips at the end showing the real characters.

HH: By contract, Universal Studios could write whatever script they wanted. I detested the first screenplay they sent me. It read like "The Bad News Bears Launches Rockets" and was just one cliche' after another. I chose to work within the system, however, by making certain the director and the actors had a copy of the book manuscript. When they read the book, they understood how much better the true story really was and started making changes. I was also hired as a technical consultant for the movie and was on set nearly every day and worked constantly to change the script. I got my way in the end for the most part. There were still some things I didn't like but I think the movie captures the spirit of the book and I'm quite proud of it.

SFR: The book seemed to be less innocent, and I wonder if the decision to downplay the animosity of the jocks or your heartbreak wasn't a mistake.

HH: A screenplay writer adapting a book has to pick and choose because there isn't much much time to develop very many themes. The author has the luxury of expansion along lots of tracks as needed. In the end, October Sky focused on the father-son relationship and the rocket-building and, of course, the science fair. I do wish, however, that a little more time would have been taken to explore the Valentine character.

SFRevu: I liked the kid from Texas at the Science Fair and missed him, and the talk you had with the machinist's widow seemed like a better turning point than the film's. Well, I liked the book, and it's easy to get stuck on the reality you already know.

HH: You definitely get an "attaboy" from me there, Ernest!

SFR: In your article in the Wall Street Journal (May 21, 1999) you mentioned that the NASA scientists are "cutting metal" on demonstration versions of the kind of engines we need to get us out of our low Earth Orbit rut. When will they be lighting the fuse? Will you be there?

HH: At the rate we're going, not for a long time. But all that could change with a new President. I hope to be influencing him or her as needed to get NASA going on what it does best - building big, bad rockets!

SFR: in that article you called for NASA to "turn over chemical rocket development to commercial interests; build a smaller cheaper smarter space station; prepare to retire the shuttle fleet; and lay out a 10-year program to produce a working advanced propulsion space drive based on fission, fusion, or antimatter physics."

How has reaction been to the article?

HH: The reaction here in Huntsville, Rocket City, USA, has been enthusiastic to say the least! The propulsion engineers out at Marshall Space Flight Center are champing at the bit to build these space drives. They can do it, they say, in a decade with the proper emphasis and funding. The reaction from elsewhere in NASA has been muted although I sense agreement by the grunt NASA engineer. They, like me, are bored with low earth orbit and want to get on with moving out into the solar system. I think, by the way, the solar system is big enough to engage humanity's interest for a very, very long time. The stars can wait as far as human voyages to them. Robotic probes to the stars will be the way to go for now.

SFR: Is it available online?

HH: Yes, on the Wall Street Journal web page. I think there's a charge for it, though.

SFR: How do we join up, and who's leading the charge up Capitol Hill?

HH: No politician is leading the charge to build these new propulsion drives. Dan Goldin, the NASA administrator, is doing the best he can - feeding Huntsville as much money as he can scrounge - but the space station and the shuttle will continue to eat NASA's lunch for a very, very long time unless a leader stands up and says no more, it's time to change. All of us just need to keep thumping these politicians over the head. We've been stuck with these old chemical rockets and the old ways of doing things for too long. Right now, we have as strong an economy as we're likely to have for a very, very long time. Now's the time to move, not dither. I say let's go!

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backtothemoon.jpg (19482 bytes) Back to the Moon by Homer H. Hickam
List Price: $23.95 Amazon Price: $16.77
Hardcover - 368 pages 30th anniv edition (June 15, 1999) Delacorte Pr; ISBN: 0385334222 Other Editions: Audio Cassette

Former NASA propulsion engineer Jack Medaris needs something that was left on the moon. Doctor Isaac Perlman does too, and he's hired Jack to go get it for him. But Isaac only wants to save mankind from an energy poor future by mining the moon's helium three rich soil. Jack is looking for something much more important to him. He's looking for a way back to the time before a test stand fire killed his wife. Both men are racing against the clock to get the helium three back before an energy treaty is signed, effectively closing the door on the fusion energy that is almost within their grasp.

When the robotic miner Jack's company developed for the job is destroyed by mysterious intruders and Jack is left severely beaten and bleeding, Isaac is ready to give up. Jack can't. No matter what it takes, Jack is going back to the moon.

We all remember the scene in the movie Apollo 13 when NASA engineers toss a bunch of parts on a table and ask themselves what they can make out of them to save the crippled spacecraft's crew. Well, this is a bit like that. Homer took stock of our current space hardware and asked how to put together a lunar landing mission with off the shelf parts. Allowing himself just one new toy (in the best SF tradition)...a higher energy engine for the shuttle. Not an unreasonable edge to allow.

Throw in a shuttle hijacking, a kidnapped woman journalist, a dead pilot and a spacesick flight engineer, and a whole lot of people with reasons why they don't want Jack to succeed, and you've got a story that just keeps going from blastoff to reentry.

Last year, Homer Hickam's memoirs of his adolescence in a West Virginia coal town caught my eye, thanks to the cluster of young men holding a rocket on the cover. It captivated more than just me, because it soon became a movie - renamed October Sky to appeal to a broader audience. If you missed either, go back and read or see them. But don't miss Back To The Moon when it comes out in mid-June because Homer has put together a real hum-dinger this time. Not a nostalgic piece about America gone by, but a rip-snorting page-turner about a desperate man and a whole lot of very real space hardware.

There is a growing feeling that NASA has failed. That the organization was more an end in itself than a means to an end. Back To The Moon, written by a former member of that team, poses a lot of important questions while it races along in its guise as a Techno-Thriller. Most importantly it asks why Americans aren't out there raising a little hell on the high frontier. Exactly why is it that we haven't gone back out there? Hickam meant this to be a fast paced read for the beach, and it sure is, but it's also a foot in the door on the way back to the stars.

The last time we went to the moon, it was to show the world we could do it. Next time, we'll be going because we want to stay. I can't help but hope that as long as there are men with spirits like Jack Medaris, or with vision like Homer Hickam, Allen Steele, Victor Korman, or Ian Strock, we'll be back sooner than you might expect.

In the meantime, buy the book. I wonder...can the movie be far behind?

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