By Carra Higgins
The Rocket Boys Festival went to new heights this year in Beckley as both young and old were inspired by the life of Homer Hickam and the quest for knowledge.
Festival director Scott Hill said “there’s probably no better place in the country” to have the event because of what the new location — the Exhibition Coal Mine and New River Park — has to offer: coal history, education and science — exactly what Hickam’s books are about.
This is the first time the festival has been in Beckley; it moved here after it was no longer feasible to be in Coalwood. Hill said he lost sleep about the possibility of not having the festival, and although it built its base over the years in Coalwood, hundreds of people made the soggy trip to Beckley to celebrate the Rocket Boys.
As Saturday’s event began in the cold, wet, overcast weather, Hickam told the crowd, “I can see sunshine in your hearts” to celebrate the Rocket Boys, West Virginia and its coalfields. Hickam also expressed his appreciation to the city of Beckley for hosting and continuing the Rocket Boys Festival.
Among those there to share their knowledge of science and engineering were about 20 students with Mountaineer Area Robotics (MARS), which is based in Morgantown, but has members from across West Virginia. MARS team members are mostly high school students who build robots and compete internationally. They attended the festival to demonstrate their robots to those in attendance.
MARS mentor and West Virginia University aerospace and mechanical engineering major Caroline Hamrick said she was looking forward to meeting Hickam and helping spread the word about the importance of math and science.
Gretchan Utzman, 8, of Morgantown, said she helped explain how the MARS robots worked to other children, but was looking forward to the tour of the coal mine.
Virginia Tech engineering students were among those on hand to help youths build rockets they launched later in the day and understand how science, especially physics, is involved in the rockets’ ability to jet into the air. Jenna Spencer, a freshman general engineering major at Virginia Tech, is from Scott Depot and thought it was “cool to meet the Rocket Boys ... and be back.”
Ryan Hatton, of Blairstown, N.J., was also one of the Virginia Tech engineering students assisting possible future rocket scientists. Hatton said he attended last year’s Rocket Boys Festival in Coalwood, but only bottle rockets were launched. This year, though, real, small rockets could be launched because of the space at New River Park. Hatton said he hopes middle and high school students are inspired by math and science and the story of Hickam.
Drew Stafford, of Flat Top Lake, was among those building a rocket to watch it launch.
“They’re fun,” Stafford said of rockets.
Stafford’s father, John, brought Drew and his other son Noah to the event. John Stafford said he worked as an engineer and had been attending the Rocket Boys Festival in Coalwood for 10 years. He took his sons to Saturday’s event because of an interest in science and the history and importance of the space program.
As part of the day of festivities, Isabella Rotellini, 11, and Raegan Hefner, 11, crafted paper airplanes to see just how far they would fly.
Rotellini attended the Rocket Boys Festival because her science teacher at St. Francis de Sales encouraged her and other students to be inspired by Hickam: If you put your mind to it, you can do anything. At school Friday, Rotellini met Hickam, who talked about growing up in a coal town and how knowledge is power, she explained.
Hefner, a student at Shady Spring Middle School, said she was looking forward to building and decorating a rocket and seeing just how far it would go.
Even though the weather didn’t cooperate, Hill called the turnout and response “very positive.”
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