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Film Independent Mon 8.15.2016

Indie-pendent Study: Dreaming Big and Going to Space with ‘October Sky’

In our new monthly feature Indie-pendent Study, writer Su Fang Tham explores films that have inspired her to dive into specific areas of interest, prompting her to research and learn about the subjects being depicted—no matter how odd or obscure—in detail well beyond the scope of the original film. Who says watching movies can’t also be educational!


OCTOBER SKY (1998, dir. Joe Johnston)

“Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.” –Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King’s quote above perfectly encapsulates the spirit of aerospace engineer Homer Hickam, whose unyielding determination to break the mold of what was expected of a poor Coalwood, WV boy in 1957 prompted him to become an engineer for the United States Army Aviation and Missile Command and later, an aerospace engineer for NASA. And in 1998, director Joe Johnston and a 17-year-old Jake Gyllenhaal brought Hickam’s heartrending yet inspiring memoir about four boys coming-of-age in a poverty-stricken coal mining town to life in the critically acclaimed drama October Sky. Let’s begin with a brief recap of the film before I talk about what area of research it inspired me to explore.

From the very first moments, Mark Isham’s haunting score consummately conveys the sense of desperation, isolation and hopelessness of the Coalwood miners, who are constantly under the threat of furloughs and shutdowns due to the poorly performing mine. As they plod through the mud-filled roads of the company town on their way to work every day, each man with a metal lunch box clutched in his hand, you can all but hear the mournful cries of lives desolately waiting to be lived.

‘October Sky’ (1998)

Upon witnessing Russia’s launch of Sputnik I in the night sky on October 5, 1957, young Homer and his friends are inspired to help America get back into the “space race.” After months of errant rockets flying every which way but up (one actually lands near the mine where Homer’s father is the superintendent), duds that explode before even taking off the ground and being ridiculed by family and classmates alike for their audacity to dream the impossible, the boys finally make it to the National Science Fair in Indianapolis.

At a time when The Platters’ “Only You” permeated the airwaves and America was imbued with a wholesome naiveté unimaginable in today’s world, the residents of Coalwood lived a simple life in their small, isolated town in the Appalachia. Every miner’s son was expected to do what his father (and his father before him) did: work in the coalmines after high school until retirement. A lucky few might get a ticket out of this predetermined fate via a college football scholarship, but such stories were rare. As Homer’s high school principal Mr. Turner (played by Chris Ellis) declares matter-of-factly in the film: “Our job is to give them an education, not false hopes.” Fortunately, it often takes only one person to make a difference in a person’s life and for Homer, that honor fell to his high school science teacher, Ms. Riley (played by Laura Dern). Not only does Ms. Riley open his eyes to the possibility of getting a college scholarship by winning the National Science Fair, she is also the first one to believe in his potential before even Homer himself could fathom what that might be.

Further Study

Jake Gyllenhaal and Laura Dern

When I first watched October Sky 10 years ago on a bus ride from Boston to Portland, Maine, it was so powerful that it inspired me to read not only the book on which the film is based, Hickam’s Rocket Boys: A Memoir, but also its two sequels, The Coalwood Way and Sky of Stone. Revisiting the film for the purpose of writing this blog entry, I was lured into reading up on the many stages of Hickam’s fascinating aerospace career, including his time at NASA, where one of his specialties included training astronauts on science payloads and extravehicular activities (EVAs). This got me into looking more into EVAs because it’s the very foundation of how manned space missions are even possible.

Here are a few things that I’ve learned about EVAs:

  • EVA is otherwise known to us earthbound mortals as “spacewalking” whereas the Extravehicular Mobility Unit (EMU) is what we call a “spacesuit.”
  • The first human to perform an EVA was Soviet Cosmonaut Alexi Leonov, on March 18th, 1965, when he spent 12 minutes outside the Voskhod 2
  • The Americans followed suit three months later: U.S. Air Force officer, test pilot, and astronaut, Edward Higgins “Ed” White II became the first American to walk in space on June 3rd, 1965. His spacewalk outside the Gemini 4 capsule lasted 21 minutes.
  • One of the health risks to astronauts/cosmonauts when conducting spacewalk missions is Decompression Sickness (DCS), which occurs when the body is exposed to sudden and significant decreases in atmospheric pressure. To prevent this, a 12-hour decompression protocol called the “Camp-out Procedure” is performed, whereby the astronauts sleep overnight in the airlock, lowering their air pressure to 10.2 psi, compared to the normal station pressure of 14.7 psi. During this procedure, they breathe in 100% Oxygen to displace Nitrogen in their tissues. This pre-breathing prevents the buildup of Nitrogen gas bubbles, which can cause symptoms ranging from numbness and tingling to joint pain or, in worst-case scenarios, death.
  • The EMU (spacesuit) uses 100% oxygen as opposed to air and supports spacewalks up to 6 – 8.5 hours.
  • According to an article on news.mit.edu dated July 22 of this year: MIT is currently working on space boots that vibrate as they detect obstacles to enable astronauts to “feel” the terrain around them. The footware in the pilot study included “one motor each at the heel, big toe, and instep, and three motors along the outer edge of the foot.”

While it’s been fun learning about spacesuits and spacewalks, I must admit it has also had the adverse effect of taking me out of a scene when I’m watching certain movies set in space. For the sake of expediency, we will often see astronauts (in movies) jumping into their spacesuits to tackle intergalactic accidents within a moment’s notice. But I now know that this would’ve likely killed the astronaut because even after the 12-hour decompression protocol and putting on the spacesuit, astronauts generally have to breathe in 100% oxygen for another hour before performing the EVA to minimize the risk of DCS. Ignorance is bliss, after all.

EVA scene in ‘Gravity’ (2013)

Now that we’ve taken a brief tour of the EVA and the EMU, let’s calmly drift back down to boring ol’ earth… Looking into all this extraterrestrial adventuring has also brought an odd sense of fulfillment to the conclusion of October Sky’s story. In a way, the fact that such remarkable things exist is the ultimate tangible proof that Homer Hickam has completed his journey from amateur rocket-builder to actually working as a spacecraft engineer at NASA.

The film also resonated deeply with me in a personal way, reminding me of a few occasions in my own life when I dared to dream things that I had no business dreaming, and when few around me believed in my vision of what my future should be. I’ll end this entry with my favorite quote, which I believe sums up Homer’s triumphant life trajectory:

Go confidently in the direction of your dreams. Live the life YOU’VE IMAGINED.” – Henry David Thoreau

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