Author Homer Hickam shares a memory of his time at Virginia Tech with local pilot Jim Floyd. Hickam was on hand in Liberal Wednesday evening to help honor Floyd and his donation to the Mid-America Air Museum. L&T photo/Elly Grimm

ELLY GRIMM

  • Leader & Times

 

Liberal’s Mid-America Air Museum played host to not only a dedication ceremony for the donation of a new plane to the museum’s collection, but also to a figure who has been a prominent figure in aerospace and engineering for multiple decades.

Homer Hickam was on hand at the Mid-America Air Museum Thursday evening, and he was very positive about his first visit to Southwest Kansas.

“I came through Liberal to help honor my former Virginia Tech classmate, Jim Floyd. We were both in the Class of 1964 and members of the Cadet Corps since Virginia Tech was a military college at that time,” Hickam said. “We were in the same unit and became good friends, and we all stuck together through school. Most of us went into the military in one branch or another, and this was during the Vietnam War era. We stayed in contact off and on throughout the years and it was about 10 years ago when we started having more frequent reunions with everyone. I knew Jim had become a pilot himself, but we were all surprised to learn he had moved to Kansas and became a well-known crop-duster and sprayer, and that can be a dangerous profession. However, he was always one who wanted to serve everyone, and this was a way for him to do that and also help the state's agricultural work. He's reached the point where he's retiring and is donating his plane to the Mid-America Air Museum, and he asked me if I would come and be part of that, which I was more than happy to since I was already in Kansas doing a talk at Fort Hays State University. This trip is actually my first time in Southwest Kansas, and I've really enjoyed it. I had a great time with my talk at Fort Hays State University, and the people I've met have been great so far. I'd also never been to Jim's ranch, and it was great seeing his operations and meeting some of his friends from the area and taking the area in.”

Hickam said his original interest in aviation was sparked at a young age.

“As some people might know, I'm best known for a book I wrote in 1998 that was originally titled 'Rocket Boys,' which did really well on the bestseller lists and in other places. That book is the story of my growing up in West Virginia in the coal mines in the 1950s – during that time, a group of friends and I got together to start a rocket club, and we built some pretty sophisticated rockets, which helped us win the national science fair,” Hickam said. “That book got turned into the movie 'October Sky,' which is still a pretty popular movie, and I'm actually portrayed by a very young Jake Gyllenhaal. I've written several other books, but that's the one people know the most. After all of that, I ended up working for NASA was a training manager for astronaut and cosmonaut crews, and I actually helped train the first Japanese crew that went up to fix the Hubble Telescope when it was damaged. I also spent time in Russia negotiating with the Russians about the International Space Station. My background is in aerospace engineering, which is a big part of the aviation industry, and it's my honor to have been in Liberal to help honor Jim since he's also a big part of the aviation industry – crop-dusters are a very brave bunch and do a lot to help farmers and that agricultural work.”

Hickam said aerospace and aviation work continue to fascinate him.

“Aviation and aerospace are always interesting because there always seems to be something going on. Having spent so much time with NASA and helping with that training, I definitely keep up with some of those developments, and it's just a very interesting field to be part of because there's always something interesting that needs to be done,” Hickam said. “These days, I primarily write, but during my career with rockets and missiles and all of that, I was definitely happy to go into work every morning, because not everyone gets to work for NASA, and like I said, there's always something going on there. We are now in what I could call the second golden age of space flight, with the first age being back in the 1950s and 1960s with all that work that happened with Sputnik and then the programs that got us to the moon. Things didn't really progress as much as we would have wanted in the succeeding years, but it's been rather recent with the launches of Elon Musk's SpaceX and Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin, so we're seeing a new revolution in space flight and being able to free fly over and over these rocket engines. With SpaceX especially, we're going into space relatively inexpensively, which means more and more payloads, more and more satellites and more and more people being able to go into space. That could mean setting up outposts and possibly even living areas on the moon and possibly even Mars in the distant future. We're in a rather revolutionary time in that regard, which I don't think too many people saw coming, and it's amazing to see what's going on with that.”

Hickam said there is also a lot to look forward to in the future.

“With the Artemis program at NASA, we are going to go back and put astronauts on the moon within the next couple years, and then build some spacecraft there so like with the International Space Station, we'll have astronauts and crews living on the moon. I see commercial development occurring there, and there are some resources that could be brought back to Earth, such as helium (which Kansas is famous for), helium-3 (which is important for fusion reaction), and many other similar resources,” Hickam said. “I truly see a commercial economy between the Earth and the moon getting started within the next few years. I actually wrote a book called 'Back to the Moon,' and it inspired the National Space Council and our former vice president to start the aforementioned Artemis program, which is still going today.”

Overall, Hickam said, the visit to Southwest Kansas ended up very positively.

“I'm primarily a writer nowadays, and I've got multiple books out, including a new memoir titled 'Don't Blow Yourself Up,' which is inspired by my mother always giving me that piece of advice when I'd be working on one project or another during my career,” Hickam said with a chuckle. “It's a true sequel to 'Rocket Boys' and takes me through college and Vietnam and my career with NASA, and it also includes some behind-the-scenes stuff about how 'October Sky' was made and what that process was like, which some people should find interesting. Everyone is invited to visit my Web site, homerhickam.com, and my Facebook page is called Homer Hickam Official Page for anyone who wants to follow that.”

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