I've always liked the movie October Sky, which was inspired by Homer Hickam's book Rocket Boys, and this weekend I finally got around to reading the book. Hickam grew up in the tiny mining town of Coalwood, West Virginia in the 1950's, and when Sputnik was launched in October 1957, "Sonny" Hickam got the idea to build and launch his own rockets. This was a pretty unusual thing to do in a poor coal mining town, and of course there were many obstacles to overcome along the way. But Sonny put a team together and over 3 years, they built and launched a lot of rockets.
It makes for a great story, much better than the movie in many ways, though the inspiration and support of Homer's mother and of his teacher Miss Riley figure prominently in both versions. Homer's high school dream was to someday work for Wernher von Braun, and when his mother presented him with an autographed picture and a personal note from von Braun on Christmas day 1958 (she had secretly written to him about her son's rocket projects), it brought a tear to my eye. Von Braun's encouraging message ended with the words "if you work hard enough, you will do anything you want."
Of course that turned out to be the case, and after some time in the military (including a tour in Vietnam), Hickam became an engineer and worked for many years for NASA, though he never actually met von Braun (as I believe he finally does in the movie version).
One scene in the book left me a little skeptical when I read it. In early 1960, John F. Kennedy was campaigning in West Virginia for the Democratic presidential nomination. While shopping for a suit to wear to the national science fair conference, young Homer happened to attend a JFK campaign speech. At the end of the speech, JFK asked for questions, and Sonny raised his hand and asked "What do you think the U.S. ought to do in space?" JFK turned the question around, and Sonny said "I think we should go to the Moon." JFK responded that this sounded like a good idea, and if he were elected president, maybe we would go to the Moon!
Did this really happen? Could young Homer Hickam have given JFK the idea for the Apollo program? I'm sure this was suggested by more than one person, but according to the FAQ on Hickam's web site, he did indeed have this exchange with JFK in early 1960!