October Sky (Mining Movie – 1999)


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October Sky is a 1999 American biographical film directed by Joe Johnston, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper and Laura Dern. It is based on the true story of Homer Hickam, a coal miner’s son who was inspired by the launch of Sputnik 1 to take up rocketry against his father’s wishes, and who eventually became a NASA engineer. Most of the film was shot in rural East Tennessee, including location filming in: Morgan County, Tennessee, Roane County, Tennessee, Oliver Springs, Harriman, and Kingston, Tennessee.


October Sky is an anagram of Rocket Boys, the title of the book upon which the movie is based. It is also used in a period radio broadcast describing Sputnik as it crossed the “October sky.” Homer Hickam stated that “Universal Studios marketing people got involved and they just had to change the title because, according to their research, women over thirty would never see a movie titled Rocket Boys”,[1] so Universal Pictures changed the title to be more inviting to a wider audience. The book was later re-released with the name in order to capitalize on interest in the movie.


The film is set in Coalwood, West Virginia in the year 1957. The coal mine is the town’s largest employer and almost every man living in the town works in the mines. John Hickam (Chris Cooper), the mine superintendent, loves his job and hopes that his boys, Jim (Scott Miles) and Homer (Jake Gyllenhaal), will one day join him in his mine. When it appears that Jim will receive a football scholarship to attend college, this leaves Homer to fulfill his father’s dream, although his mother, Elsie (Natalie Canerday), hopes for more for her son.

In October, news of the Soviet Union’s rocket launch of Sputnik 1 reaches Coalwood. As the townspeople gather outside the night of the broadcast, they see the satellite orbit across the sky. Filled with awe and a belief that this may be his chance out of Coalwood, Homer sets out to build rockets of his own and enter the science fair. Initially, his family and later his classmates think he has gone crazy and is wasting his time, especially when he teams up with Quentin Wilson (Chris Owen), the school’s math geek who also has an interest in rocket engineering.

With the help of his friends, Roy Lee Cooke (William Lee Scott) and Sherman O’Dell (Chad Lindberg), and support from their science teacher, Miss Riley (Laura Dern), the four try out their new passion. While their first launches are failures, they begin experimenting with new fuels and rocket designs. After several successful launches, the local paper runs a story about them.

The next day, they are arrested — accused of having started a forest fire with a rocket that had gone astray. After Homer’s father picks him up from the police station, Roy Lee is seen getting beat up by his stepfather, Vernon. Homer’s father intervenes and rescues Roy Lee, warning the drunken man that, even though Roy Lee’s father is dead, he will beat him up as he would have for attacking Roy Lee. In a rare display of emotion, he tells Roy Lee that Roy’s father was one of the best men he ever knew.

The arrest, along with Homer’s father’s lack of support, crushes the boys’ dreams.

After a mine disaster, Homer’s father is injured rescuing “… a dozen men [who] would have died…”, though one other miner does die. Homer drops out of high school and works the mine to provide for the family while his dad recovers.

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