By Cody Neff
FWOOOOOOSH! Rockets sprayed off of their launch pads Saturday at the second annual Rocket Boys Festival in Beckley in front of a cheering crowd.
One of the original Rocket Boys says the event is a great chance to inspire children.
“The goal of the festival is to allow us to come together each year and participate in other events and promote the major idea behind the Rocket Boys’ story and that is education and the importance of education,” Rocket Boy Billy Rose said.
“Our lives and how we overcame difficulties in each of our lives can serve as something that kids can take away and apply to their lives. These kids should be able to say, ‘If I get an education, I can get out of whatever situation I might be in.’
“As a result of going to schools and speaking to students ..., we tend to inspire them to do a better job of being a a good student. Maybe they all would have gone on and done all of this anyway, but I like to feel that we had a part in doing that and inspiring them to go on and to go to college to replicate what we’ve done in our lives.”
Another of the original Rocket Boys says the old version of the festival ran into a few problems in its former home of Coalwood before it eventually had to stop.
“Coalwood is very difficult to find,” Roy Lee Cooke said. “It’s only 35 miles from Bluefield, but it takes an hour to get there. ... The folks who lived there when we were there growing up who had been instrumental in putting on the festival are getting quite elderly. It was becoming just too much for them.”
The festival’s new organizer said he couldn’t let the legacy and good intentions of the festival die.
“After I found out about the canceling of the festival at Coalwood, I lost a few nights of sleep,” Scott Hill said. “That was a major deal for our state and I thought that it should keep going. You don’t hear too many good stories out of West Virginia these days so I wanted to keep something good in the area. I contacted Homer Hickam and asked what he thought about the idea of moving the festival to Beckley. He liked the idea and here we are.
“Beckley has a few advantages over Coalwood, like the hotels and things like that. Right here in New River Park we have a place that’s perfect for a launch pad and we have a planetarium right down the hill in the Youth Museum. ... It seemed like the perfect place to have the festival.”
When the festival moved, it picked up some new experience in the form of a local science teacher who has his own history with rockets.
“I’m glad Scott brought the festival into Beckley,” said Shady Spring Middle School science teacher Henry Bobbin. “He picked me up because I’ve been shooting rockets off since I was like 10 years old. I enjoy doing it and I was a perfect fit to come in and do that activity at the festival.”
Bobbin says the festival is a great place for local kids to find a love of science.
“It’s an excellent chance to look at some of the unique things that are currently being used in the science world,” Bobbin said. “It really boosts interest to go into those fields. We need more people in the fields of math and science. ... We need more females to go into the maths and sciences. With things like this, I’d love to see more females out here interested in this stuff and looking at a possible future in the industry.”
The coordinator for student outreach from NASA’s IV and V facility in Fairmont says getting kids interested in science and math early on is the trick to helping them work toward a career in those fields.
“Right now we know a good percentage of careers are going to be science, technology, engineering and math-based,” Jaime Ford said. “For instance, most of my exposure to science in school was biology, so that’s what I sought when I graduated. If we can show the kids these fields now, that might be something of a reason as to why they might go to college for one of these fields. We’ve found that the middle school years are the best times to expose kids to STEM activities.
“We’re sharing our information and staging little activities with the kids. Some kids are taking part in an experiment to bring an ‘astronaut,’ which is just a Ping-Pong ball, down safely. They are protecting the ball with ‘springs’ that are just paper springs. They’re working to see if they can create a stable landing.”
Ford says the group is also working to promote the FIRST LEGO League.
“We’re absolutely ecstatic to be here and to share and support information about the FIRST LEGO League (FLL),” Ford said. “It’s a STEM competition, and students come together as a team in a way that is a lot like what they would experience in a STEM-based career field.
“They design a robot that’s going to go through certain challenges. They run through the processes of brainstorming, teamwork and trial-and-error to come up with a robot that’s going to do exactly what they want it to do.”
A paper airplane competition and a rocket competition were also at the festival to boost childhood interest in science.
Virginia Tech freshman David Evans talked about the rocket contest.
“We provide people with the rocket kit and the rocket engine. People can build that rocket in any way that they want to and they’ll get to see how well their design and their engine works. We also are able to provide them with ideas and things like that. We can’t actually build the rockets for them and we won’t even touch the rockets.”
Another celebrity guest at the festival said he loved the rockets.
“The rockets have been great,” actor Chris Owen said. “They have been a really good time and I’ve really enjoyed it. It’s also been great to sign autographs, take pictures, and meet with everyone around here. It’s really cool.”
Owen played Quentin in the movie version of “October Sky” and said this is his first trip to the Mountain State.
“The nice people behind the October Sky and Rocket Boys Festival decided to shoot me an invite,” Owen said. “I had no idea that this was even happening to be honest. I was quite embarrassed to find out that this is like the 14th or 15th year of it. I told my girlfriend, ‘How would you like to go to West Virginia?’ Neither one of us had ever been and here we are.
“It’s just gorgeous out here,” he added. “I come from Los Angeles and we just don’t have this there. We don’t even know what seasons are. It’s just really nice to come out here and see it all.”
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