Mangesh Shirke



Mangesh Shirke


Prompt 4 - The Rocket Man

Prompt 4 - The Rocket Man

5 mins

It was an October night filled with a cool breeze in Coalwood, West Virginia, in 1957. The US. A group of young guys was playing outside a cottage where a family gets together was happening. One of them was a kid who was lovingly called Homie in the entire family. While everyone was busy playing volleyball in the sands, he was making paper rockets using an old newspaper. Since his childhood, he had always loved to make paper rockets. He knew how to make a paper rocket fly for a much longer time, by creating folds & developing the perfect shape aeronautically.

“Hey Homie…” his father, a Coal Miner, called out from behind, “Don’t you want to see a real rocket in space…?”

As soon as Homie heard this, he dropped aside what he was doing & ran inside the house.

All the family members had assembled in front of the TV. The Russian Space Agency had just launched the first satellite, Sputnik, in space. The commentator was explaining in the Russian language the entire launch program stating how the rocket was propelled from earth & how the satellite was made to orbit in space.

The young Homie was greatly inspired by seeing the rocket. He then came out on the lawn, prepared a new paper rocket, and looked in the sky. The crescent moon was shining, hiding behind the clouds. Homie then lifted his hand & flew the rocket towards the moon. It soared up to a small height & bounced back on earth.

“Your paper rocket won’t go till the moon, son…” his father said as he came outside & sat next to him.

Homie looked thoughtfully towards the sky. He imagined how the earth would look from space, how the newly launched Sputnik will view the continents from high up there. He kept looking at the sky, thinking about all the undiscovered things that were present in the space, on the moon & far away from the earth into the vast Universe.

“One day, I’ll prepare a Rocket that goes till the moon, dad…!” Homie said confidently.


Homie then attended the Big Creek High School, once of the most recognized schools in the Coalwood area. In the next few days, Homie and his friends Roy, Sherman, Billy & Quentin did a lot of research on rocket propulsion & the initial preparations with the fuel required to eject the rocket. Using local materials & the available fuel, they created a small rocket, but it exploded as soon as they tried to ignite it.

After many failed attempts, they finally decided to take the help of their science & physics teacher, Freida J Riley.

“I’ll surely help you, but remember, we’ll have to do it after school hours.” The 5 boys, who had named themselves ‘Rocket Boys’, happily agreed to this proposal.

In the coming days, Miss Riley guided the young boys on the principles of Rocket Design. Soon, the boys showed rapid progress in their work & finally prepared their first mini rocket, which they exhibited in a local science fair. Using manual ejection, they ignited the rocket which flew at a huge height of about 200 meters from the ground & crashed down exactly at the designated spot.


Miss Riley faced a lot of rejection from the principal of the school & her staff, but she continued to help the boys ignoring all her staff & all the dismissals that she received.

While in school, Homie and his friends showed tremendous progress in Rocket Engineering.

After designing many rockets, they finally got an entry in the 1960 National Science Fair. The Rocket Boys won a Gold & a Silver Medal in the Rocket Aerodynamics category.

Following the wonderful performance in the National Science Fair, Homie then got direct admission to Virginia Polytechnic Institute & State University. In his earlier years, with the help of his classmates, he designed a Cannon made out of locally available Brass. This Cannon went on to become an icon of the Virginia Institute.

While in graduation, the Rocket boys continued to make rockets for various exhibitions.

Homie then graduated from the Virginia Institute in 1964 with a Bachelor of Science Degree in Industrial Engineering.

After graduation, he joined the US Army and served the nation in the Vietnam War. While in the army in 1969, he came to know that Miss Riley, their teacher in school who taught the Rocket Boys the basics of Rocket Engineering, was suffering from a rare type of cancer & had very little time left.

The Rocket Boys who were now in different positions across the country assembled together and build a Rocket named ‘Riley’ to honor the help & guidance that Miss Riley had given not just to them, but to many young & aspiring students in the Big Creek High School. That rocket flew up to a huge height crossing the earth’s atmosphere & then crash-landed in the nearby lake as per the calculations.


Post retiring from the army in 1970, Homie then joined the US Army Aviation & Missile Command which designed Army vehicles & missiles for warcraft. He then used his expertise in Rocket designing for preparations of missiles & torpedoes which served the army & navy.

Finally, after working for 11 years in the US Army Aviation, Homie was then hired by NASA as an Aerospace Engineer at George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama. In his NASA career, he trained Astronauts with regards to payloads. He worked on numerous Space Lab & Space Shuttle missions, the most prominent including Hubble Space Telescope deployment mission, the Spacelab – J mission & as a payload manager for the launch of ISS (International Space Station) programs.


Homie, known as Homer Hickam Jr. was once called in his hometown in Coalwood, West Virginia for the inauguration of a science exhibition. He was then asked where his life story as a rocket engineer had started.

Homer then proudly answered, “It all had started with the making of small paper rockets while sitting outside my home in the village…!”



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