It was a fifth-grader by the soft tone of his voice who put things into context when three of the “Rocket Boys” made an appearance Tuesday afternoon at Mannington Middle School.

“What if the Russians hadn’t launched Sputnik in 1957?” he asked Jimmy O’Dell.

O’Dell is one-sixth of the Big Creek Missile Agency and well into middle-age.

He and “Rocket Boys” author Homer H. “Sonny” Hickam Jr. graduated from high school in 1960, or 46 years ago.

In the coming-of-age story set in McDowell County at the start of the space race, the first satellite leads to the founding of the BCMA — and the rest of the story.

For O’Dell’s questioner and the other 400 children at Mannington Middle, the “what ifs?” and “why nots?” of life are still unanswered.

The Rocket Boys have their answers: the book, the movie — “October Sky” — the DVDs have given them second careers as educators.

So O’Dell, just slightly taken aback after so many assemblies, went Socratic.

“Can we go back to tomorrow?” he said.

His inquisitor was momentarily at a lost. In the middle of a waving forest of raised hands, he lost his chance for a dialogue.

But the exchange is why the Rocket Boys are still on the lecture circuit, seven years after the book was published.

Their message is school is a good place to explore the “what ifs?” and “why nots?” of life.

After all, when they and Hickam won a National Science Fair award, they got tickets out of Coalwood.

Miss Riley was one reason, said O’Dell, Billy Rose and Quentin Wilson. She was the chemistry and physics teacher at Big Creek High.

Teachers are on your side, they told the students.

To prepare for their visit — “GEAR UP,” the regional program designed to increase college attendance sponsored the assembly — the seventh-grade students held a bottle rocket contest. There also was a homeroom door decorating contest. Other students entered a poster contest.

Jared Mileto, the seventh-grade teacher, announced that Maverick Myers, Brandon Ramsey, Zack Smith and Derek White won the bottle rocket contest with a flight time of 6.56 seconds.

Frank Puskas, the fifth- through eighth-grade art teacher, said many classes showed “October Sky.” Many children brought their own DVDs or books to the assembly to get them autographed.

“We talked a lot about Miss Riley, about how she motivated the boys to get out of the coalfields,” he said. Her premature death to cancer also moved them, said Puskas, a first-year teacher.

Cindy Shipley, the school’s GEAR UP coordinator, said the school only learned two weeks ago that the Rocket Boys were available.

The story’s appeal crosses gender lines, she said, noting the girls were just as involved as the boys were in all the pre-visit activities.

Christy Burner, assistant GEAR UP director, said it was the second school visit Tuesday for the Rocket Boys trio.

“We’re going to another school and a college tomorrow,” she said.

“If they inspire one student, then they’re doing their job.”

E-mail Bill Byrd at

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