Arts & Culture

October Sky Turns Twenty-Five

Visitors still travel to the little West Virginia town that inspired the film and the book, Rocket Boys

A group of teens look up at the sky

Photo: Universal Pictures

Jake Gyllenhaal stars as Homer Hickam in October Sky.

Twenty-five years ago, the film October Sky introduced much of the world to Coalwood, West Virginia. Joe Johnston directed the film, which starred a young Jake Gyllenhaal as protagonist Homer Hickam and Laura Dern as Miss Riley, his encouraging teacher. The film premiered on February 19, 1999, to critical acclaim. “This movie has deep values,” Roger Ebert concluded in his review.

The story of teenagers inspired to build rockets by the launch of the Soviet satellite Sputnik continues to reach new fans, says the real-life Homer Hickam, whose best-selling memoir, Rocket Boys, inspired the movie. (Fun fact: The filmmakers reordered the letters of the book title to give October Sky its name, which also nods to the fact that Sputnik was launched in October of 1957 and can be seen racing across the sky in the movie.)

photo: Universal Pictures
Homer Hickam (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Miss Riley (Laura Dern).

“There’s a whole new generation that’s seeing it for the first time,” Hickam adds. The film now streams on Amazon Prime Video, and “every substitute teacher in the world” seems to show it, he says. “It works for every class”—science, English, history. “It’s a timeless, universal story.” 

Hickam, who worked for NASA and lives in Huntsville, Alabama, is planning a movie sequel, December Sky, based on his book The Coalwood Way. (While the original was filmed in Tennessee, Hickam wants to shoot in West Virginia this time.)

An online map of October Sky filming locations in Oliver Springs, Tennessee, includes the Coalwood General Store, Union Hall, and Miss Riley’s home. In Virginia, about an hour away from Coalwood, the Pocahontas Exhibition Mine gives tours of a former working mine from spring to fall. (Find more information here.) And although Coalwood, West Virginia, is much smaller now than when Hickam lived there, movie fans still stop by the spots that inspired it all. “The church is still standing, and across the street are the machine shops where we built our rockets,” he says. A rough road leads to “Cape Coalwood,” the slack coal field where the boys drew crowds for test launches. “A lot of people make that pilgrimage.”

Katherine Jarvis contributed to this piece.

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