The Rocket Boys will launch into cyberspace this week for the first-ever Virtual Rocket Boys Festival.
Scott Hill, executive director for both the festival and Theatre West Virginia, has been spearheading the event since it moved from Coalwood to Beckley eight years ago.
The Rocket Boys Festival is a celebration of the Rocket Boys – a group of aspiring astronauts living in one of West Virginia’s many coal mining towns. Following the Soviet launch of Sputnik in the late 1950s, the group of friends, who all attended Big Creek High School, decided to launch their own rocket. With the help of a science teacher, mine mechanics and a driving curiosity, the boys were able to build their own rocket which reached altitudes of several miles.
Homer Hickam, then a high school student and now a former NASA employee, was at the center of the fun. He went on to detail his story in a memoir titled “Rocket Boys” – now a beloved New York Times bestseller.
The book was later adapted into a movie, “October Sky,” and a musical.
Last year, which was the festival’s 20th anniversary, was supposed to be the last Rocket Boys Festival, but according to Hill, that plan didn’t stick too well.
“The demand for something normal right now touched all of us,” Hill said.
“We wanted to reach out and use this festival as a way to step up and show that this is a safe way for them to use their time. We wanted to show people that it is going to be OK,” he said, referring to the changes precipitated by the global pandemic that hit the United States earlier this year.
By making the festival accessible online, people from across the country and even the world will get to experience an event beloved by many West Virginians.
In the past, Homer Hickam made the journey from his home in Alabama back to West Virginia to attend the festival and, although his pilgrimage won’t be as lengthy, Hickam will still make an appearance at this year’s event.
Those who virtually attend the festival will have the opportunity to interact with Hickam and his fellow Rocket Boys, get a sneak peek inside a real coal mine and the town of Coalwood, hear behind-the-scenes details of the filming of “October Sky,” enjoy special musical performances and more.
Students and adults can also attend virtual writer’s workshops and enter essay contests with Hickam, who has written 19 other best sellers in addition to “Rocket Boys.”
According to Hill, the essay topic will ask writers to detail what they have gained during the Covid-19 pandemic, which they must answer in 250 words or less.
Winners will receive cash prizes, a signed copy of “Rocket Boys” and other awards.
“It is so important for young people to see that it is OK to be from here, that you can still be successful and be from West Virginia,” Hill shared. “We are just hoping that it is a way for people to come together during these uncertain times.”
Although this year’s festival isn’t traditional, Hill said it has been much easier and less time-consuming to put together than the in-person event. Because of this, he says, a virtual Rocket Boys Festival could happen again in the years to come.
“The festival has always been unique,” he said. “This is just another way of doing it. This is one step down the road closer to normal.”
The festival will take place from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Oct. 27, 28 and 29. Attendants will be able to access the event through the Rocket Boys Festival Facebook page or at rocketboysfestival.com.