The Big Creek Missile Agency

The short story that became the movie October Sky.


In 1957, Coalwood, West Virginia, was a miner’s town, a dusty coal camp in a narrow valley surrounded by high, heavily forested ridges, the sky a narrow swath between them. I still think of the black-helmeted miners who every morning tramped along the path to the Olga Number One shaft, heavy denim pants tucked into steel-capped boots, lunch buckets swinging from calloused hands. Life in Coalwood seemed changeless, its center for me and its 1,200 inhabitants a deep shaft that plunged into a rich seam of bituminous coal. But when I was 14, an event in far-off Kazakhstan profoundly affected everyone in Coalwood: the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1. The townspeople went out into the crisp autumn night to watch the first man-made satellite streak overhead. We were mesmerized by the sight; it seemed like some new and wonderful age had begun. Some of us even began to build rockets.

Roy Lee Cooke, Jimmy Carroll, Quentin Wilson, Sherman Siers, Billy Rose, and I had grown up together. We’d been in the same Boy Scout troop and built forts, attended dances, gone to church, and chased the same girls. All our fathers worked in and around the mines, as had their fathers and grandfathers. Before Sputnik, we were headed for the mines too. Now, suddenly, we were looking in a different direction: up.

Up meant rockets, and we wanted to build one. Rocket-building manuals being scarce, our first attempt was based on an illustration in Life magazine. We took a flashlight casing, punched a hole in its base, filled it with powder from 30 cherry bombs, stuck a fuse through the hole/nozzle, and used the top of my backyard fence for a launch pad. It was a cold, clear evening, ideal for tracking a rocket across the night sky. Liftoff was a huge ball of fire. However, it wasn’t our rocket that lifted off, but the fence. Mom came out on the back porch and contemplated the smoking ruin. “Somebody’s in trouble,” she sang out. Dad came out too, and in effect demanded a body count. We replied with quivering voices that we were all still alive.

The failure of our first launch clearly demonstrated that we didn't know enough. Until Sputnik, we had been indifferent to science and math, neither seeming to have much to do with our future. Our chemistry and physics teacher at Big Creek High School, Miss Freda Riley, worked desperately hard, often buying teaching supplies with her own tiny salary. Down the hall, Mr. Lockhart, our math teacher, had long since given up capturing the interest of his students and had taken to giving lectures with his back turned, scrawling equations across the blackboard. Now, suddenly, both teachers had students who were not only interested but intensely interested. Mr. Lockhart had been around too long to be overly impressed, but Miss Riley was enthralled by her suddenly attentive charges. Her classes became ever more inventive. She brought in flatirons and wooden boats to demonstrate Archimedes’ principle, balloons and bicycle pumps for Boyle’s law, and yo-yos to explain centrifugal force.

Our first 11 rockets failed, which taught us that sometimes things have to be learned the hard way. Dodging aluminum shrapnel, for instance, was an excellent way to discover that the rocket casing would have to retain a certain amount of pressure. It also demonstrated that rocket propellant would have to burn slower than cherry bomb powder. We also learned about rocket nozzle design by discovering that the diameter of the hole in the bottom dictated whether the rocket would blow up or just lay on its side and spew. Somewhere in there was the right nozzle throat diameter, if we could just learn to calculate it. Suddenly, Mr. Lockhart’s plane and solid geometry classes had some pertinence, and we astonished him by asking sensible questions.

Despite our new academic interests, our failures in the field were so steady that we named our rockets after the great auk, a bird that could not fly. But we were learning to be methodical, building on what worked, changing what failed.

Auk XII was our first success. A foot-long, inch-wide aluminum tube filled with potassium nitrate and sugar, it flew to the giddy altitude of 100 feet. We’d gotten the idea for the propellant when Miss Riley had used it to demonstrate rapid oxidation. When we saw that hot pink flame, we Coalwood boys shared knowing glances. Rocket fuel!

Potassium nitrate, otherwise known as saltpeter, was available at the company store, and sugar was in the pantry. We mixed it half and half and then went up and down the scale, looking for the best burn rate. After each mix we tossed the results in the coal-fire water heater in my basement. One day Mom was leaning on her new fence, talking to the neighbor, when our best combination went off, sending a spout of flame and smoke up the chimney with an impressive whoosh! Mom poked her head in the basement and informed us that, once again, somebody was in trouble. We sheepishly clanged the heater door shut. Dad later collared me as I headed outside. “Going to burn the house down?” he asked. “No sir,” I said. “Attaboy,” he replied.

Every weekend we would try our latest design. Our launch pad was a hollow behind the mine. “Is it going to work?” the miners would yell as we went past. When we showed them what we’d built, they’d grin and shake their heads. We were getting attention that had previously been lavished only on the football team.

When one of our rockets ricocheted off a tree and chased us through the woods, we decided we needed a true range and settled on an abandoned slack dump. Situated between mountain ridges, it was nearly a mile long. The coal mine supervisor—my father—okayed our using the dump and a little company lumber to construct a blockhouse, but he made it clear that that would be the extent of Olga Coal Company’s assistance. The property was for mining, not for flying off into near-space. Still, anytime we needed something for our rockets, somehow it would just appear on the back porch.

Gaining national attention at that time was a gutsy group that seemed to be making great strides in rocketry. Wernher von Braun’s team in Huntsville, Alabama, was known as the Army Ballistic Missile Agency—ABMA. We dubbed ourselves the Big Creek Missile Agency—BCMA. My parents wrote the great man himself, asking for an autographed picture. It came with a note: “If you work hard enough, you will do anything you want.” The BCMA had been sanctioned by an unstoppable force. We were written up in the newspaper as “the rocket boys.” I was invited to speak to the Kiwanis Club, and, representing the BCMA, I took our designs to the National Science Fair.

During our last year of high school we pushed our saltpeter-and-sugar rockets as far as they would go, noting that there was a definite limiting factor as we increased the size of the rockets to gain altitude. We began to search for better propellants and delve into equations involving specific impulses and mass ratios, information not found in high school texts. Miss Riley provided the book we needed: Principles of Guided Missile Design by Bonnet, Zucrow, and Besserer. I still have it.

In May 1960, we launched Auk XXXI. It stood just over five feet tall and was 1.75 inches in diameter, had an electrical ignition system and aluminum fins bolted to the base, and was constructed of steel tubing with a nozzle and top plug machined from steel bar stock. We used zinc dust and sulfur as our propellant, and the steel nozzle had a throat diameter that had been calculated for maximum exhaust velocity. A converging-diverging design, it had been shaped on a lathe in the mine machine shop by a helpful machinist. To avoid erosion, we had lined it with an ablative ceramic. The nose cone was turned in the mine carpentry shop and fitted into a recess at the top of the casement. There was a vast gulf between this rocket and the backyard fence bomb we had built just a couple of years before.

At least a hundred miners and their families were on hand for the launch of Auk XXXI, each with a tale of how they had helped us in some way. The rocket flew perfectly, its smoke tracing a thin white line on the bright blue sky. By using homemade theodolites and applying some trigonometry and Newtonian physics, we were able to roughly calculate its altitude. Auk XXXI, the last rocket of the Big Creek Missile Agency, rose nearly four miles.

All of us rocket boys would go on to graduate from college, something not likely in pre-Sputnik West Virginia. Roy Lee became a banker. Jimmy went into insurance and farming. Quentin, Billy, and Sherman became engineers. I became a NASA manager at the Marshall Space Flight Center, von Braun’s old headquarters. Though I now work with astronauts and often see shuttle launches, nothing will ever compare to seeing an Auk leap into the air, propelled by the dreams of boys and the kindness of a small town.

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