In his #1 New York Times bestselling memoir, October Sky, real-life NASA engineer Homer Hickam captured the excitement of America's first space ventures. Now, in this no-holds-barred joyride of a thriller, he straps us into the cockpit of the space shuttle Columbia as a renegade rocket man hijacks the shuttle—and blasts off on a Mach-speed chase into space....
Jack Medaris is a man haunted by his past and driven by a dream: He's risking everything to "borrow" the Columbia—and pilot it to the moon. He didn't plan on an unexpected passenger, beautiful celebrity daredevil and scientist Penny High Eagle. To Penny, this hijacking will test every bit of her mettle as an adventurer—and as a woman. To Jack, the mission is a personal quest—to return to the moon and bring back what America left behind, something so explosive, it could change the future of the world. Now, as the U.S. government scrambles to the chase, and as deadly forces are deployed from earth to stop them, a man and a woman find their fates inextricably entwined. And in the savage emptiness of deep space, their only hope is to join forces to reach the lunar surface. Then comes the hard part. Getting home alive.
|Publisher:||Random House Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||4.50(w) x 7.00(h) x 1.30(d)|
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Read an Excerpt
This I have known always: love is no more
Than the wide blossom which the wind assails,
Than the great tide that treads the shifting shore,
Strewing fresh wreckage gathered in the gales.
Pity me that the heart is slow to learn
What the swift mind beholds at every turn.
—Edna St. Vincent Millay, "Pity Me Not"
LAUNCH MINUS 5 MONTHS, 13 DAYS, 14 HOURS, AND COUNTING . . . Prometheus MEC Clean Room, Hangar 1-D, Cedar Key, Florida
"NASA is and always has been a subversive organization. Anything else you hear is a public relations lie," Jack Medaris said.
Dr. Isaac Perlman looked at the ceiling of the big hangar and wagged his head from side to side, an indication of his doubt at his companion's comment. "Subversive? Why, Jack, there's never been a more conservative bureaucracy on this planet. It takes polls to see what it should do next. It lets politicians decide technical matters. You forget I went there first for my moon dirt. NASA just laughed at me. That's why I hired you!"
Medaris and Perlman, dressed in clean-room regalia--white one-piece coveralls, puffy plastic hats, and latex gloves--were watching a dozen other similarly clothed men and women ministering to what looked to be a giant robot, two gangly arms akimbo, mounted on a go-cart. The doleful strains of Barber's Adagio for Strings accompanied the technicians as they moved slowly and reverently around the machine's oddly shaped pyramid of spheres, rods, and cables. Antennae protruded from each level of the machine. Its "arms" were actually two extendable and jointed booms. At the end of one of the booms was a digger, a rakelike device. The other arm had a grasping claw.
"I'll grant you NASA as a bureaucracy is timid," Jack said. "But what I'm talking about is its charter. NASA is supposed to develop the means to allow American citizens to leave the planet. Leave, Doc! What could be more seditious than that? If NASA ever does what it's supposed to do, Americans are going to be flying all over the solar system. Where there's Americans, there's trouble. It's in our nature to cause trouble, challenge authority, kick up our heels, and be ornery. You think it's going to be any different in space? Just you wait. It'll be a sight to behold!"
Perlman kept shaking his head. "No, no, no, Jack." He laughed. "Nothing of the kind will ever be done. You're talking about Americans the way they used to be. We're too fat and happy now. No American is going to get in a rocket ship and take off into the wild blue yonder. Why, they'd miss Monday Night Football!"
Jack grinned. He enjoyed debating with Perlman. None of it was serious, just lighthearted philosophizing to offset the boredom of watching his engineers prepare for the final flight-readiness test of the robotic moon miner--Prometheus, as it was called. Jack owned the company that had built it, the Medaris Engineering Company, MEC for short. After the accident that had killed his wife, and the investigation that had resulted in his banishment from NASA, MEC had become the most important thing in Jack Medaris's life. An invention of his called the sling pump, used in almost every liquid rocket tankage system in the world, had made Jack wealthy and MEC a very prosperous company. His people were paid accordingly. WE HAPPY FEW, read a banner over the entrance to the clean room. It reflected the fierce camaraderie of the company and the loyalty of its people to its founder.
As the test neared its critical phase, Perlman became visibly nervous, not surprising since he had paid Jack and MEC over thirty-one million dollars to build Prometheus. "Is it looking good?" Perlman worried.
"Very good, Doc," Jack said, concentrating on the sensor data scrolling down a computer screen.
"It's got to work," Perlman breathed, his fingers covering his lips as if he was afraid to let his voice fall on the precious spacecraft.
"Everything is fine," Jack said distractedly. And it was too. Jack and MEC's thirty engineers had spent a year carefully constructing Prometheus, borrowing liberally from the proven design of the old Soviet Union's Lunakhod series of moon-sample return spacecraft.
"I feel like WET's coming at me like an unstoppable locomotive," Perlman remarked with a groan. Every so often, it seemed, Perlman had to voice a little misery.
Jack ignored the comment. He didn't want to get off into a discussion of WET. The acronym stood for the World Energy Treaty, a United Nations agreement that had been drafted after the breeder reactor disaster in Sorkiyov, Russia. Hundreds of Russians had died, thousands more were going to get cancer, livestock devastated by the score, trees, grass, everything contaminated and dying. An antinuclear frenzy had swept the planet. WET banned all "power plants utilizing fissile and radioactive materials." The treaty had been ratified by every country in the world except France and the United States. President Edwards had signed WET but the Senate, as yet, hadn't approved it.
Jack had known Perlman for five years. The physicist had just turned up on Cedar Key one day, introduced himself in Jack's office, and tried to start an argument. "Do you know what the most important product of our civilization is?" he had demanded.
"No, Dr. Perlman," Jack had replied, amused, "what is the most important product?"
Perlman had raised his finger, his habit when he pontificated. "It's not cars, not television sets, not even computers. It's energy! Without energy Western civilization would not exist. A good portion of the earth--the so-called Third World--struggles in misery and degradation. Those poor people think what they need is money, or a different political or economic system, to rise up out of their poverty, but what they really need is energy!"
To Perlman's disappointment Jack had not seen fit to argue. "Okay, Doc. Energy. What does that have to do with me?"
Perlman had looked out Jack's office window, to the ocean tide that lapped the nearby shore. "Mr. Medaris, did you know that in a gallon of seawater there is the equivalent energy content of three hundred gallons of gasoline? That's because ordinary water contains deuterium--heavy hydrogen. If deuterium is fused with an isotope known as helium-3, the result is nearly limitless energy. Did you know that?"
Jack remembered Perlman spreading his hands in that effusive way he would come to know so well. "I have come up with a way to use inertial confinement of a quantity of deuterium and helium-3, subject it to the heat and pressure of a rather large laser beam, and release all that energy. Fusion, Jack. Energy from fusion is within my grasp."
Energy from fusion: the commercial application of the same physics as the sun and the hydrogen bomb. It had been the dream of scientists, engineers, and researchers for six decades. The little man had leaned forward. "But I need help, Jack. You are my only hope!"
Sally Littleton caught Jack's eye, releasing him from his reflections. Her eyebrows were raised. She was ready to complete the final test. Jack nodded and his lead Prometheus engineer began to call out the next steps.
"If it fails . . ." Perlman worried.
"It's not going to fail."
"There's so little time."
"There's plenty of time. Everything I read says the Senate won't pass WET until July. That's six months away. When we finish tonight, we'll disassemble Prometheus, ship him off to Shiharakota. The Indians have already mounted our dog engine to their Shiva launcher. Once this payload is stacked, we launch. We'll have your dirt back to you in three weeks."
"It isn't dirt," Perlman grunted, ever sensitive. He could call it that but he didn't like anybody else doing it.
Jack nodded. "Fire beads, then."
"And it's not quite true that I will have it three weeks after launch." Perlman clucked. "It'll still be on a ship."
Jack had explained it to the physicist a half-dozen times. "We could speed things up if we had the freighter dock in Hawaii, lease a jet there. Probably save you a week."
"I'll ask my benefactors," Perlman said doubtfully.
Jack shrugged. It was ever thus, even with a group of heavy-hitting investors like the January Group. Jack assumed at least one of the members of the organization was a bean counter, worrying about spending thousands when they'd already spent millions--hundreds of millions, in fact--to build Perlman's pilot fusion plant in Montana. "Penny wise and pound foolish, eh, Doc?" Jack gently gibed.
"The men and women of the January Group are cautious with their money in their own audacious way," Perlman answered stiffly. "Thank the good Lord for them or I'd not be as far as I am. You wouldn't either."
"Do you even know who they are, Isaac? I know you work through their attorney."
"I do not," he said primly. "It is none of my business. But I've been told they are the movers and shakers in this country."
Jack looked Perlman over. "You haven't told them about me, have you?"
"You asked me not to."
"You didn't answer my question."
Perlman changed the subject, not fooling Jack for a moment. "I still can't believe WET will make fusion energy a crime. It will all be done in the name of the children, of course--what reckless activity in the last decade hasn't? And what is the world going to do for energy? Keep burning fossil fuel! Oil and coal, Jack! Can you imagine the pollution? The degradation to the environment? My technology is clean, cheap, and limitless!"
Sally gave Jack a thumbs-up on the sensor readings, and also a pert smile. She was a handsome woman, that Sally. Perlman was still rattling on, extolling the advantages of his technology. "Doc, everybody's going to see that," Jack interrupted. "We've still got time. You'll get your dirt--fire beads--in a month or so and you'll be able to fire up your plant, show it to the media, demonstrate how safe it is too. After that I guarantee you they'll make an exception in WET for fusion."
Perlman shook his head. "I don't want that damned treaty modified. I want it killed. If we approve it, we might as well pack it in. In fifty years, maybe less, this tired old polluted planet is going to go dark."
"We're doing the best we can, Doc."
Perlman was into it. He stabbed his index finger at the roof. "I don't care about fission energy, Jack. They can shut down every nuclear reactor in the world and I wouldn't give a flying fig. But fusion is not fission."
Jack took a deep breath. "You told them about me, didn't you?"
Perlman slowly lowered his hand. "I had to. The January Group wasn't going to give me seventy million dollars to hire someone they didn't know."
Jack looked at Perlman. "What did they say? I'm sure they dug up everything they could find on me."
"Nothing." When he saw Jack's doubtful expression, he added: "I swear, Jack. They cut the check within two weeks after I told them your plan."
Sally had rolled a computer up to Prometheus, plugged it into an interface panel. A graphic display, a thick red horizontal line on a blue background, formed on the monitor. "Ascent stage sim, plus ten," she announced, keying in the parameters of the final stage of the mission.
"Reentry activation, nominal readout," Virgil Judd said, watching the numbers come up on the computer. Judd had been a Cape Ape, laid off by the decimation of the workforce there over the last two years. He was a big, gentle man with a lovely wife and a very sick daughter suffering from the advanced stages of cystic fibrosis. Jack had done everything he could to help Virgil, including arranging for tests at the Mayo Clinic. We happy few.
"Vector all balls, deceleration nominal," Virgil said. Then, "Bingo deceleration. Switching to reentry mode."
A few minutes later another layer of numbers slid across the computer screen. "Simulating reentry, checking azimuth, bingo envelope," Sally said. "Readouts on volume." The music, provided by a CD player outside and piped in through speakers in the four corners of the bay, switched to Orff's Carmine Burana, placing a triumphant caste on the already exciting moment. "Nominal targeting. Prometheus has landed," she concluded, peering at the screen. She looked over at Medaris, her eyes twinkling with excitement. "On the money, Jack. Prometheus is ready to rocket and roll!"
Jack joined in the spontaneous applause of the engineers, muffled by their latex gloves. He approached the moon miner, looked over the numbers still running down the computer screen. "Let's pack him up, children. Our boy is ready to go to India." His people crowded in, clapping him and each other on the back. Virgil picked a protesting Perlman up bodily and waltzed him around the room. The CD switched to "Jailhouse Rock." The dozen engineers in the room joined them in an impromptu shag. Prometheus seemed to be thoughtfully watching.
It was several hours later, well past midnight, when Jack finally got to his office to catch up on some paperwork. Virgil was the only other person still in the plant, detailed to finish the inventory of Prometheus components, and to initial out the procedures manuals. Since there were only thirty full-time employees at MEC, everyone pulled double, even triple, duty. Jack scanned his desk, determined to make a dent in the piled-up documents, mostly purchase orders for the myriad of hardware required to build such an exacting machine as Prometheus. He walked over to the interior window in his office that looked down into the clean room and admired the robotic spacecraft, resting in a cone of light from an overhead lamp. He especially admired the arm with the claw. That had been his addition to the spec. Perlman had asked him about it and Jack had explained that Prometheus might need to move a few rocks to get at the fire beads at Shorty Crater. It was an explanation that could be defended but it wasn't its real purpose. That purpose he kept to himself.
Virgil spotted Jack and walked to the squawk box. "Hey, boss, I'm nearly finished down here. How about you?"
Jack looked over his shoulder at the purchase orders and gave in to his fatigue. They could wait until the morning. "Yeah, Virg. I'm ready to pull the plug too. Go ahead. I'll lock up." Virgil, Jack knew, wanted to know who was going to be the last out of the building. The MEC burglar alarm system was cranky, requiring a complicated code to be entered into a box at the exterior door and again at the parking lot gate. It was a time consuming process and about half the time it didn't take and had to be reset and reentered. Everybody hated it. The system had been installed, the cheapest available, when MEC first moved into the facility. Jack depended, more than anything, on the remoteness of the site to protect the company. Trooper Buck, the Cedar Key constable, made routine swing-bys during the few hours the plant was unoccupied at night. Still, having a burglar alarm that might not even work was foolish and Jack knew it. One of the purchase orders on his desk was for a new security system, but there had just been so much to do.
"See you tomorrow, boss," Virgil called.
"Okay, Virg. I'm right behind you."
Jack took a moment to savor Prometheus, but memories of his wife flooded him as they often did when he was tired. Looking out over the moon miner reminded him of the time when he had found Kate in their mountain-home sunroom, pensively gazing down on the city of Huntsville and, on the distant horizon, the big rocket test stands of Marshall Space Flight Center. When he'd asked her what she was thinking, she had said, "Jack, if I die, will you forget how much I love you?" He hadn't known what to say. It was such a preposterous idea. She was younger than he, the very picture of health. "Please tell me you won't ever forget." He'd knelt before her, taken her hands, and promised. They'd ended up making love, passionately clinging to each other as if they only had a few hours left together rather than a lifetime. Five months later she and their unborn child were dead. NASA had determined that it had been his arrogance that had killed them. Soon after, he had resigned and left the agency. Ever since, it had seemed that he lived in a different world, one of shadows and pain.
Jack shuddered, pushed away the memory that was beginning to creep into his thoughts, of the bitter night on the test stand, when he had lost all that he loved. What good did it do to think of it now? A lump in his throat, Jack turned from the window, found his briefcase, and was nearly through the door when the telephone rang. It was Sally Littleton, calling from what sounded in the background like a party. "We're getting down here at the Pelican, Jack," Sally yelled over the din. "You got to come on by and live a little, boy. You deserve it."
He felt drained. "It's been a long day, Sally."
"Jack Medaris, you get on over here. Isn't that right, everybody?" Jack heard a chorus of shouted agreement in the background. Sally came back on. "Your people are celebrating and they want you with them!"
Jack looked at Prometheus, saw his own reflection in the window. He had been a solitary man for years. He was lonely. There would never be, couldn't ever be, another Kate. Yet he needed the touch and the warmth of a woman in his arms, her breath in his ear, her perfume. . . . "All right, Sally," he said quietly. "Tell them I'm on my way."
"I'll be waiting, Jack," she replied with the emphasis on I.
Jack clumped down the wooden steps of the old hangar, set the alarm on the clean room, then moved through the two outer dressing chambers. The old hangar was plunged into darkness except for an emergency light mounted above the main door. He went outside, turning to set the exterior alarm. Compared to the crisp, sanitized air in the plant, the breeze coming off the lapping ocean nearby was rich, heady. Jack took a deep breath. He loved Cedar Key, a bountiful treasure of nature. He had chosen the remote Florida island as the site for his plant because of its isolation. He could hear in the distance the plaintive call of a loon. The Key was a nature preserve, only the old airport where he'd built his company zoned for industrial commerce. Bird watchers the world over came to the island. Fishermen crowded in for saltwater fishing at its best, at all times of the year. A single narrow bridge was all that connected Cedar Key to the Florida mainland.
Jack stepped off the stoop and was surprised to find a big recreational vehicle facing him. He glanced toward the perimeter fence. Virgil had left the gate open, as was common when someone else was following close behind. The RV's lights went on, blinding him. "Hey, mister," an unfamiliar voice called out. "You got any idea where we are?" A man walked out of the glaring light. He was short and stout, had a walruslike mustache, and was wearing a bright yellow shirt and creased tan slacks. He was holding a sheet of paper.
Jack shielded his eyes with his hands. "This is a restricted area," he said. "You need to leave."
The man waved back at the RV. Jack could see several shadowy figures standing alongside it. "Sorry, mister. We saw the gate open and the lights. We're fishermen and we're lost. You got any idea how to get to Stevenson's Fish Camp? I got a map here."
The man appeared innocent but the road was clearly marked as leading to the old airport. If they had ignored the signs, they had to be not only lost but stupid too. "Never heard of the place," Jack said. "If you'll go back through the gate, turn left, that'll take you into town. You can ask there."
"Why don't you just look at the map, mister? I think we're way off here."
The man approached. Jack thought about going back inside, but that would have required entering the code. "Look, fellows, this is a restricted industrial plant. Go into town, ask there."
"You know, you're not an accommodating fellow, Mr. Medaris," the man said, smiling. "I've decided to Milli Vanilli your ass."
"What?" He knows my name. Jack was startled by the sound of heavy boots pounding on the asphalt. He didn't have time to react. Someone big, dressed in black, came out of the lights, tackled him, knocked him down, and fell on top of him. Jack landed on his back, his head hitting the concrete stoop. Everything dimmed. He struggled for consciousness. He grabbed the man, pulled at his arm, felt something give way. It was a patch on his shoulder, a piece of black Velcro. There was a flash of gold letters, just for an instant. Puckett Security Services. Then he felt himself being rolled over, his hands jerked behind him. Something hot dripped down his neck. Handcuffs clicked shut on his wrists.
"Cut the wires, all of 'em," somebody said.
Jack was blearily aware of men running past him, battering at the door. He heard it tear from its hinges. There was no alarm. The man in the yellow shirt knelt beside him. "Milli Vanilli means I pretended to kick your ass while somebody more qualified did the work." He laughed and then abruptly turned deadly serious. "Take him inside."
Jack was ruthlessly jerked by his wrists, pushed into the hangar, through the doors, all hanging from their hinges. Two men, dressed in black fatigues, clustered at the clean-room door. The yellow-shirted man walked in front of Jack. "The lander in there?"
"I don't know what you're talking about. That's a clean room. We use it to inspect our pumps."
Using a flashlight, the man peered inside, Prometheus glittering in the spot of his light like a giant tin man. "Doesn't look like a pump to me, Mr. Medaris."
Jack tore loose from his captor, ran for the door. He had to get help. He was quickly caught, thrown to the floor. His shoulder felt as if it had been dislocated. Jack groaned, kept struggling. "Get him out of here," the man said harshly.
Jack was jerked to his feet again. It felt as if a spear had been stuck in his shoulder and twisted. He couldn't help but cry out, although it shamed him to show weakness in front of these men. He looked over his shoulder, saw men in black fatigues batter down the clean-room door, go inside. Other men followed, carrying sledgehammers and cutting torches. Despite the pain Jack struggled to stop them. He was savagely driven to his knees, then dragged across the concrete, through the halls, out the door, thrown down onto the asphalt in front of the RV, its headlights now dimmed.
Nearly mad with impotent outrage, his head in a puddle of his own blood, Jack listened to the sound of smashing sledgehammers, glass breaking, the hiss of torches, more doors being battered down. The man in the yellow shirt stepped up, knelt down beside him. "Well, thank you, Mr. Medaris. It's been real. By the way, you ought to be more careful with the combustibles in your plant. I'm afraid it's caught on fire."
Jack struggled to raise his head, saw the flames licking out of the broken windows, an orange glow deep within. "Why?" he cried.
"Don't you know, Mr. Medaris?" the man said softly, his small dark eyes twinkling mischievously. "We did this for the benefit of all mankind."
Jack felt the heat of the flames against his skin. He turned away from it, trying not to think of the time when another fire had engulfed him and all that he loved. He involuntarily groaned, let his face down into his blood. He felt someone taking off the cuffs. He was roughly dragged to his feet. Blood still streamed down his neck. His shoulder felt as if it had been torn to shreds. His wrists were raw and bleeding. The men got back into the RV and drove away, left him standing alone. It turned away from Cedar Key, toward the main highway.
The hangar was an inferno by the time the volunteer fire department arrived ten minutes later. Trooper Buck was with them. Soon afterward the engineers of MEC, Doc Perlman, and the company lawyer, Cecil Velocci, arrived as well. They found Jack sitting in the parking lot, quietly watching the futile efforts of the firemen. When they reached down to help him, he pushed their hands away, then finally stood up under his own power. He growled at anyone who approached not to touch him. He held his shoulder, gritted his teeth against the pain, ignored the steady drip of blood puddling at his feet. The others were certain he'd gone insane.
The glow from the garish flames made the scar on his face and neck look as if it were on fire too. His eyes glittered as the flames reached solvents stored in a back room. The hangar burst apart, buckets of solvent flying into the sky, trailing long torrents of hot liquid fire. Jack said nothing, didn't move at all when everyone else fell back from the resulting volcano. He was thinking.
After the fire had died down, Jack turned to the throng. "Isaac, a word," he said quietly.
Perlman approached him, his eyes wide. "What happened?"
"Men came to destroy Prometheus. They knew all about it."
"How did they get in?"
Jack grimaced. "The gate was open."
Perlman was quiet for a moment. He might have been looking at Jack's dripping blood, scarlet in the glare of the burning hangar. "Jack, I'll have to tell my investors the circumstances. They may come after you, want their money back."
"They'll get their dirt," Jack growled.
Jack's lip was split. He spat blood while the likely scenario played out across his mind. The company had insurance, but he could see the insurer accusing him of arson. A jury, hearing of his background, might conclude he was guilty. In any case, it would be tied up in court for years before he saw a dime. "Buck," he said quietly. The policeman came to him. "You ever hear of Puckett Security Services?"
Buck was six and a half feet tall in his cowboy boots, a formidable man and a secure presence on the little island. "Nope," he said. "That who did this?"
"Do you still have contacts with the FBI?" Jack asked.
"Sure. You want me to check it out for you?"
Buck leaned into Jack, his big broad face lit by the guttering flames. "I will on one condition. Let the paramedics take a look at you."
Jack relented, walked toward the ambulance. The people opened a lane for him. He kept his head down, not from pain or shame. He was still thinking. A fresh ocean breeze fanned the embers in the hangar and a torrent of flame suddenly roared alive.
Jack turned to watch the blaze and then saw the bloody crescent of the moon floating through the smoke. Luna. The face the moon showed the earth was pocked and scourged, but like many plain women she had a body that could still fill men with lust. Another sea breeze blew the smoke away and the crescent turned from scarlet to gold. Isaac Perlman coveted the golden dust that layered the moon, sifted into her cracked rock, coated her craters, seeped into her pores. He had revealed to Jack the moon's secret treasure: helium-3, blown through space for billions of years by the solar wind, laid down on Luna's airless surface. Perhaps, Jack realized, helium-3 was a threat to someone who might do anything to keep it off the earth. The moon also held another treasure. Kate. She waited for him at Frau Mauro. Jack's eyes slowly began to fill with determination.
"What are we going to do, boss?" Virgil asked, holding the door of the ambulance open.
"I'm still working on that, Virg," Jack said quietly as he climbed in. He sat on a bench, looked at the faces of his people, his happy and faithful few. "But I can tell you this much: We're not going to quit."
On Wednesday, June 30th, barnesandnoble.com welcomed Homer Hickam Jr. to discuss BACK TO THE MOON.
Moderator: Welcome, Homer H. Hickam Jr.! Thank you for taking the time to join us online this evening to chat about your new book, BACK TO THE MOON. How are you doing tonight?
Homer H. Hickam Jr.: Well, I'm doing fine, and I'm happy to be with you, and I'm just going to be happy to answer questions as they come. I'm on the third week of a three-week book tour, and of course I have almost as many questions always, wherever I go, about ROCKET BOYS and OCTOBER SKY as about BACK TO THE MOON, and of course I'm always happy to answer questions about the book and the movie as well.
Meaghan from Greenwich, CT: How did you first become interested in space travel? Did you read about it? Do you think your books will inspire the next generation of space engineers?
Homer H. Hickam Jr.: Yes, I did read about it. There were a series of books written in the mid-1950s written by an author named Willy Ley, and he inspired me to read more, and I read a lot of science fiction when I was growing up. And yes, I would hope that my book ROCKET BOYS and the movie "October Sky" and now BACK TO THE MOON will help to inspire all the upcoming generations.
Yanek from Philadelphia, PA: How feasible is the hijacking you describe in your novel? How much, if any, is based on real events?
Homer H. Hickam Jr.: I spent many years working at Cape Canaveral, although my home base is in Huntsville, Alabama, also known as Rocket City, USA. And I think that after the officials at the Cape read my description of the hijacking they'll probably want to tighten up a little bit on some of their procedures. But in order to pull off the hijacking that I describe it would require the people doing it to be complete NASA insiders, and the likelihood of that happening, I suspect, is rather slim. But also, all of the events that are described in the book are technically feasible, and as a for instance, the description that I give of operating a tether in space has been tried before already with mixed results.
Jacques M. from Montana: I read that you had low math scores in school, and yet I always thought that was essential to an aerospace career. What do you think was the most essential key to success for you in your career?
Homer H. Hickam Jr.: I didn't have low math scores, I just had very little interest in math. I studied it and tried to make good grades, mainly because it was my job: to study whatever course was given to me, and a West Virginian always tries to do a good job. When I decided that I wanted to build rockets, I quickly understood that I had to know math, and advanced math, and so I began to teach myself calculus and differential equations, and then I never made any bad grades in math after that.
Mark Austin from Charlotte, NC: Mr. Hickam, I really enjoyed the movie version of OCTOBER SKY. I grew up during the late '50s and early '60s with space travel on the brain like so many others. I took my eight-year-old son to see the movie, and he enjoyed it as well. My question is, How factual was the movie version in representing your youth and rocketry interests, and was your father anything like the actor portraying him? I plan to buy the book.
Homer H. Hickam Jr.: I'm glad he added that final sentence, because that's what I was about to tell you! The movie left much out, of course, but I was involved with writing the screenplay of the movie, and I was also hired as a technical consultant, so I spent almost every day of shooting on set, and I worked very hard to get the characters in the film as close to correct as I could possibly get, within the limitations of moviemaking. You have very little time within the movie to really develop the character completely, and a lot of it has to do with the actors chosen to play those characters, and how they choose to play them. I think we were very lucky to get the actors that we had. Chris Cooper, who played my father, talked for hours about my father, and who he really was. The original screenplay just had him being mean. But he was never really mean, he was an intellectual, and a great engineer who loved Coalwood and thought that I would have a better chance for a good future in the town of Coalwood, and that's where we had our difference of opinion.
Coleman from Denver, CO: Do you prefer writing fiction and drawing from your imagination or drawing from your memory with memoirs?
Homer H. Hickam Jr.: Well, my answer to that is that writing a memoir is very, very tough. It requires bringing up a lot of emotion from the depths of your soul if you want to write an honest memoir. And though I enjoyed writing ROCKET BOYS, writing fiction is a lot easier because it's not about me or my family. But right now, I'm actually involved in writing what could be called the sequel to ROCKET BOYS, but actually I call it an e-quel, because it takes place during the same time as ROCKET BOYS, except it has to do with the last Christmas that we Rocket Boys spent in Coalwood, and it will be called A COALWOOD CHRISTMAS. That will be out in the fall of 2000, and I'm enjoying writing it, but what I intend to do is to alternate: Every other book will be fiction or nonfiction. Probably my next fiction book will be an adventure story about scuba diving since I'm a scuba instructor.
Penelope Wilkins from Ohio: How did you choose the title ROCKET BOYS, and how do you feel about the title OCTOBER SKY? Which do you prefer?
Homer H. Hickam Jr.: Well, I chose the title ROCKET BOYS primarily because that's what the story is about. The temptation in writing this story was to go out and write about a lot of the other interesting people that lived in Coalwood, so the title was one that helped me keep my focus. As far as OCTOBER SKY, actually that is still ROCKET BOYS, because OCTOBER SKY is an anagram of ROCKET BOYS, and as a matter of fact, that's the only anagram you can make with those letters. Joe Johnston, the director of the film, came up with this title by entering it into an anagram software application on his computer just for fun to see what would come out, and when "October sky" came out, it turned out that it was the same day that he had edited the scene in the movie where we boys had looked up into the October sky and seen Sputnik. And so he just thought it was meant to be, because Universal marketing insisted that the name be changed because it sounded just like another movie, ROCKET MAN. What do I think of the name OCTOBER SKY? I have learned to live with it, and the paperback that came out with the OCTOBER SKY title has been on the New York Times bestseller list for 18 weeks, and 3 weeks at No. 1, and that's helped me to love this title!
Pac87@aol.com from xx: What was the best part about being a NASA engineer?
Homer H. Hickam Jr.: The best part of being a NASA engineer was every morning, when I got up, I looked forward to the day. There was always something interesting going on, every day was a challenge, and I felt that I was contributing to something very, very important. And also, I got the chance to work with a lot of really nice and intelligent people, not only within NASA but around the world. I spent a year in Japan training the first Japanese astronauts. I spent many months in Europe working with European space engineers and astronauts. And some time in Russia also, working with the same men who had launched Sputnik. Now I'm enjoying a new career, and I have a very similar outlook, still, in that every morning, when I get up, I look forward to the day.
Kate from Houston, TX: Do you believe in extraterrestrial life? Or intelligent extraterrestrial life? How probable do you think it is that we will make contact in any of our lifetimes? Also, what do you think of "The X-Files"?
Homer H. Hickam Jr.: Well, that's a very complex question, and I guess it doesn't matter whether I believe in it or not, or whether you believe in it or not. It either is or is not. I hope that there is intelligent life out there. It would seem to me that the odds are very much on the side of there being life, if not intelligent life, in the universe besides us, but part of the problem of making contact with intelligent life has to do with time. Civilizations in the universe and the galaxy could rise and fall over the billions of years that the universe has existed without any of these civilizations ever making contact. So, it's not only distance, it's time that decreases the odds of us ever making contact with a sentient civilization. I watch "The X-Files" primarily to watch Scully.
Greg from Chicago, IL: I'd be interested to hear your take on what the focus of NASA will be for the 21st century. Any thoughts? What to you is the most exciting prospect in the future of space travel?
Homer H. Hickam Jr.: I'm often invited to consult with the propulsion lab at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, and right now, they are actually cutting metal on -- I wouldn't even call them rocket engines -- they are more in the arena of space drives. These are machines that use energy sources such as fission, fusion, and antimatter. I know that sounds like science fiction, but the engineers in Huntsville believe they could field one of these drives in ten years. As a matter of fact, they will receive their first antimatter to work with in three months. If they get the support that they need from NASA and our leaders, they're certain that they can build one of these space drives. And what that will mean is that we will be able to go to the moon in a few hours, and to Mars in a few weeks rather than the years it now takes. If these space drives are built, it will change the entire approach to space exploration. The problem is, right now, at NASA the international space station and the space station program absorb about 95 percent of the budget, and all that is left over for the new space drive is about a half of 1 percent, which is virtually nothing. And, so, I think the people are way ahead on what we'd all like to see NASA do, and that's to build these space drives, so write your congressperson and tell them to please support the Rocket Boys and Girls down in Huntsville, Alabama.
Moderator: If the Y2K bug wreaks its havoc, what three books would you like to have in your bunker to read by light of your power generator?
Homer H. Hickam Jr.: TREASURE ISLAND, HUCKLEBERRY FINN, and STARSHIP TROOPERS.
Carol from Alabama: Where did you get your education after high school, and what degrees do you have?
Homer H. Hickam Jr.: I went to Virginia Tech, and I got a B.S. in industrial and aerospace engineering. And since then, I have not gotten any official advanced degrees, but I took many many courses offered by NASA over the years, so if you added them up, I'd probably have enough to have an official Ph.D., but I'm waiting for somebody to give me that honorary title.
Chris from Kentucky: I loved the movie "October Sky" (I read the book right afterward and loved it!). Are there any plans to make a movie of BACK TO THE MOON?
Homer H. Hickam Jr.: Yes, we could sign a television miniseries deal today if we wanted to. We're holding out for a major motion picture. There is a great deal of interest in it, but these things take time. So, you can say we're in negotiations with Hollywood now.
Evans from Minneapolis, MN: I hear that with zero gravity, people lose their muscle mass. Do you know anything more about that? Also, I loved OCTOBER SKY!
Homer H. Hickam Jr.: Thank you for that last comment, but yes, it is true that astronauts lose not only muscle mass but also bone calcium. We've already learned that being in a microgravity environment is not good for the human body over the long term, and also we have the problem of radiation. Even the astronauts in low-earth orbit receive quite a bit of radiation, which of course is not good for them either. This is why, again, it's so important that we try to build these big new space drives so that we have enough power for acceleration at least halfway to our destination. This would give us some artificial gravity and also allow for a shorter stay in the vacuum of space and all of its associated radiation problems.
Francis from Youngstown, PA: Do you ever return to Coalwood, West Virginia? How has the town changed since you were a boy?
Homer H. Hickam Jr.: Yes, I was just there two weeks ago. I was there with all the surviving Rocket Boys and their families, and my mother and my brother. Like all successful authors, I decided to buy a sports franchise, so I bought the Coalwood T-ball team, and I was invited to see a game. And when the people in Coalwood heard I might come, they got the governor of West Virginia involved, and Governor Underwood flew down in his helicopter and declared it the first annual West Virginia Rocket Boys day. So, we had a great day, and my T-ball team won. The score was 24-18. Coalwood is much smaller now than it was when I grew up. Only a few hundred people live there, where there were about 2,000 when I grew up. The coal mine is completely gone, and many of the houses are falling down because they are abandoned. And so it makes me sad when I go back to see it the way it is now. But, there are so many tourists now who come to Coalwood that the state is thinking about trying to save the town and make it into a tourist attraction, and also a place where people can come and relax and be in the mountains.
Halley M. from Richmond, VA: Mr. Hickam, OCTOBER SKY was a huge success, in my mind (both from literary and popularity perspectives). Why do you think so many people were able to connect with this book?
Homer H. Hickam Jr.: Well, it's hard for me to dissect it. All I know is that it seems to hit people at an emotional gut level, and there are all kinds of different people who have written me and emailed me to tell me this. So it seems to have a universal attraction. Sons who want to tell me how much it meant to them in terms of their fathers, people who grew up in small towns can relate. Rocket Boys and Girls who built their own rockets when they were kids. So all I can say, really, is that it's a story that seems to have universal appeal. The book has been translated now into eight different languages, and it just continues to grow. And as a matter of fact, I'm starting to feel like Jimmy Buffett. Jimmy Buffett has his Parrotheads, and I have my Rocket Boys and Girls, and they could be of all ages, and now when I go out on a book tour, or make speeches, I have people turning up with T-shirts that say "I am a Rocket Boy, too!" Or, "I am a Rocket Girl, too!" And I just love it!
Jonas from New Jersey: I'd love to hear about your favorite experience while you were in NASA -- you must have seen some amazing things and have some good tales to tell!
Homer H. Hickam Jr.: I think you're correct. I did have some wonderful experiences, and I have quite a few stories that I could tell, but I may have to wait for a few years to let those memories cool down a bit. But I would say that my favorite time working for NASA, and the one where I had so many experiences that I will probably write something about eventually, is my experiences in Japan training their first astronauts.
Moderator: What is your ideal summer vacation?
Homer H. Hickam Jr.: Since I'm a scuba instructor, my favorite summer vacation is to go to virtually any of the islands in the Caribbean and just go diving. Especially if I've got a new wreck to be explored. I love to dive on wrecks. And that love of wreck-diving led to me writing my first book, titled TORPEDO JUNCTION.
Reggie M. from Alabama: Could you tell us about your Distinguished Service Award given to you by the state of Alabama?
Homer H. Hickam Jr.: That was for the attempted rescue of the passengers and crew of a sunken paddleboat in the Tennessee River. I just happened to be on the river that day waterskiing when a sudden storm turned over the paddleboat, and within five minutes of it sinking, I started free-diving on the paddleboat to try to rescue the people aboard, and began bringing the people up one at a time, until another boat came by that had scuba gear aboard it, and I borrowed that scuba gear and dived down and got the rest of the people out. Unfortunately, there were no survivors. We were probably just a minute too late to rescue anyone, but we did the best we could.
Augustine from Houston, TX: How did your experience as a NASA engineer influence this book? Did the novel evolve out of this experience? Do you think you would still be a novelist without this compelling subject to write about?
Homer H. Hickam Jr.: Well, of course, BACK TO THE MOON is based very much on my insider knowledge of NASA, and it would be very difficult for an outsider to write such a novel, but yes, I think I would still be a writer, even if I didn't write about space or related subjects. As a for instance, my first book was a military history about the German U-boats that fought a battle against the Navy and Coast Guard along the Atlantic Coast during WWII.
Moderator: Thank you, Homer H. Hickam Jr.! Best of luck with your new book, BACK TO THE MOON. Before you leave, do you have any parting thoughts for the online audience?
Homer H. Hickam Jr.: Well, I hope that they will read BACK TO THE MOON with a couple of points of view. First, it is meant to be a book of entertainment. I call it, in fact, a beach book -- a book to be enjoyed at the beach, or the pool, or in the mountains. But at the same time, I hope that they will agree with me that it's time we got out of low-earth orbit and went back to the moon.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I presume it was Homer HICKAM who won the bronze medal. It should have been gold. This is a great, well-written, even literary space thriller. I love Penny High Eagle!
I read rocket boy and found out about this novel i knew he was a good writer but man the way the story line plays out is great with un expected turns the whole time this is a must read.
An interesting and well written book. Science fiction at its best! I recomend this book to anyone that would enjoy a good thrill!
I picked this up amid several other books I've bought recently and suddenly was awash in an exciting story I could not put down. Hickam creates a rip-roaring action-adventure story that is just a thrill. It's wonderfully crafted. You'll notice that seemingly unimportant elements later become critical. Some of the plot elements that don't seem to make the most sense suddenly are absolutely obvious and perfectly believable. It's really a lot of fun. In addition, if you, like I, dream of a day when space was an adventure, with true danger but great goals, you'll just love this book. It's every space fans dream come true.
excelent, full of action and a bit of sci-fi, loved all the scenes on the moon
Homer Hickam, best known for his series of books about his West Virginia coal mining home town, has written a great adventure story which will warm the hearts of anyone frustrated about the lack of progress in space exploration. The story begins with the hijacking of the space shuttle Columbia (sadly destroyed recently in real life) and ends with the discovery of a new source of energy on the lunar surface. What happens between will keep the reader up for hours of pure enjoyment.
I absolutely love this book! I may be only 15 yrs. old, but I know a good book when I read one! Hickam delivers the accuracy and suspense in just the right way! Besides shouldn't romances in space be suspenseful enough! The plot is just addicting, I could not put it down! Homer's descriptive and almost spine tickling drama will put chills down anyone's spine!
I was looking for a good space thriller that involved the moon--something realistic and not totally science fiction with now-impossible traveling to other galaxies or planets and such. So seeing that (1) this novel was titled BACK TO THE MOON and (2) was written by real-life former NASA engineer Homer Hickam, Jr. (author of NYT #1 bestseller Rocket Boys), I decided to buy and read it. Overall, I was not disappointed (I'd rate it 3.5 stars if I could). **********SPOILERS AHEAD*************** The good: authoritative and realistic writing on space, space technology, NASA operations and culture. Exciting premise (space shuttle hijacked to go to the moon for valuable minerals). The bad: It's pretty slow-paced for a thriller, with long on-the-ground and administrative development scenes from multiple parties unfolding long before the action ever gets to space (okay, I know, I wanted realism and I got it--that is what it takes to get to space, after all). The love interest between the lead character, Jack Medaris, and Penny "High Eagle" (really, that's what people call her?!) is just plain silly at times, and even more painful is the "love-note--left-on-the-moon" by a former lover in her childhood, which supposedly provides part of Medaris' motivation to hijack the shuttle, putting many people at risk, and to return to the moon. Also irritating was the all-too-convenient post-script "3 years later" wrap-up where all loose ends are bluntly tied up, like the overlay script just before the credits of a movie where they write what became of each character. The ending overall is sort of a gung-ho NASA space enthusiast wet dream, with everything working out for the main characters and plenty of funding going to all the right places for all the right things. That said, there's still a lot to like here. Published over a decade ago in 2000, Hickam predicts the demise of the shuttle program (although not for exactly the right reasons) and the rise of the private space industry. Also, as a diver myself, I enjoyed the minor SCUBA connection present in this novel, especially the ending scene with the moon rocks. * * * If you're looking for more quality space thrillers (there aren't really a whole lot of them are there?),I've also read these 2 (I won't be reviewing them since I read them a long time ago): The Return by Buzz Aldrin with John Barnes Cosmonaut, by Peter McAllister