Rocket Boys/October Sky Festival set for Sept. 27-28

(Brad Davis/The Register-Herald) "Mrs. Gilligan" Dreama Denver and Rocket Boy Roy Lee Cooke make a quick final inspection prior to the rocket launching portion of events at the Rocket Boys Festival Saturday afternoon at the Exhibition Coal Mine.

The 20th annual Rocket Boys/October Sky Festival, set for Sept. 27-28, will be the last to feature appearances by Homer Hickam and the Rocket Boys. 

The release said this year’s festival will not only celebrate the accomplishments of the Rocket Boys, but also the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. 

Festival director Scott Hill said 2019 marks the 20th anniversary of Homer Hickam’s now-classic “Rocket Boys” becoming a New York Times No. 1 bestseller. This year is also the 20th anniversary of the release of the movie “October Sky” based on Hickam’s celebrated coming of age memoir.

“Homer and the other Rocket Boys have been traveling back every year to support the festival and meet fans of their story who come in literally from all over the world to spend time with them,” Hill said. “If you’re a fan, this will be your final opportunity to meet them here in person.

“I think I speak for all West Virginians when I say with sincere thanks how much we appreciate them helping us all these years. The fact of the matter is that our Rocket Boys are not ‘boys’ any more.”

The Rocket Boys are all in their mid-70s now, and the trip home is increasingly difficult, Hill said. 

“So, we’re going to give them a really big send-off on the 20th anniversary of the story that put Coalwood and our part of the state on the map all over the world.

“If you’ve always said you’d like to come and meet them but you’ve been putting it off, this year’s Rocket Boys Festival is your last chance.”

Hickam, who has authored 19 best-selling books, retired from NASA as an engineer and astronaut trainer. This year, Hickam also served as the board chairman at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala., for the 50th-anniversary festivities of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

For the past 20 years, Hickam has met with fans and signed copies of his books during the festival. This year will be bittersweet, he said. 

“It has been my honor to attend and support the Rocket Boys Festival, first in Coalwood and now Beckley,” Hickam said in the release. “I will always be grateful to the people of Beckley for their willingness to do the hard work necessary to keep alive the Rocket Boys story of inspiration and hope.

“Since time and birthdays take their toll, I may not be able to come to the festival in the future but sincerely wish it will continue on for years to come.”

While previous festivals have also featured special guests, such as Hollywood stars from the cast of “October Sky,” this year will be all about the Rocket Boys themselves.  

“We really want this year’s event to be centered on fans of this unique story that has shown West Virginia in such a positive light,” Hill said.

l l l

The festival will feature two new events — a storyteller’s workshop and Homer Hickam’s stories and songs.

On Friday, Sept. 27, Hickam will host a “Storyteller’s Workshop.” Along with Hickam, theatrical storyteller Rhayne Thomas, musical storyteller Jon Wikstrom and broadcaster, public speaker and Rocket Boys Festival director Scott Hill and others will add their thoughts on the art of telling a great story.

That evening, Hickam will share behind-the-scenes stories and readings from “Rocket Boys,” interwoven with key songs from “Rocket Boys The Musical,” performed by Las Vegas entertainer and show cast member Rhayne Thomas, alongside Broadway veteran and “Rocket Boys The Musical” co-creator Carl Anthony Tramon.

The “Storyteller’s Workshop” and “Homer Hickam-Stories and Songs” are ticketed events and will both take place at the H.C. Smith Theater at Tamarack in Beckley, with proceeds benefiting Theatre West Virginia.

The Rocket Boys/October Sky Festival central location for the Saturday events is Beckley’s New River Park, which boasts an authentic exhibition working coal mine that will be open for discounted tours, taking riders on a motorized tour 1,500 feet underground. 

A “Rocket Run” 5K and 10K race, “Aim High” essay contest, food vendors and more will also be a part of this year’s festival.

One of the festival highlights is the dozens of students from schools all over America who join Hickam to launch rockets at New River Park’s hilltop “Cape Coalwood” launchpad. Rocket kits and launch supplies will be available at the festival; parents are encouraged to bring their children to launch rockets, even if they’re not affiliated with a particular group.

Students from Hickam’s alma mater Virginia Tech will be there to assist. NASA representatives from Goddard Space Flight Center will attend to talk rockets and space with festival-goers and provide their rocketry expertise.

For more information or tickets to Friday’s events, visit


follow on Twitter @WendyHoldren

React to this story: