Cape Coalwood (Rocket Boys Launch Site)
Backstory and Context
With the launch of Sputnik 1 in October 1957 the Cold War between the U.S.S.R. and the United States was reaching new heights. Russia was beating the United States in the space race by a pretty large margin. In part due to the bureaucracy that comes with government contracts. U.S. efforts to reach space were failing and the thought of Russians flying spacecraft over America frightened many Americans, but the launch had an entirely different effect on a small town in West Virginia.
Coalwood, West Virginia was a mining town that only existed to produce coal as many towns in southern West Virginia did. At one time the population of Coalwood was approximately 2,000 people, a considerable population for such a narrow valley in rural West Virginia. Like many small communities in West Virginia the population would plummet as mining changed from a labor-intensive job to a mechanically dominated job. This decline in coal jobs has had a devastating effect on southern West Virginia and Coalwood is no exception.
Homer (Sonny) Hickam Jr. grew up in Coalwood, son of Homer Hickam Sr. and Elsie Hickam. Homer Sr. was supervisor at the mine, where he spent the majority of his life. Elsie was a stay at home mother, but maintained a busy schedule in the community as well as her son’s school. Sonny witnessed Sputnik 1 streaking across the sky and it changed his life and the lives of many in his community forever. Sonny and his friends started trying to build rockets in Sonny’s families basement and tried to launch the first one in his backyard. An utter failure, the rocket blew up and destroyed part of their fence. This explosion would lead to a search for better accommodations.
Sonny’s father’s position at the mine was both a blessing and a curse for Sonny. Hickam Sr. wants Sonny to follow in his footsteps and that leads him to believe Sonny is wasting his time building rockets, but his position also gives Sonny access to resources/materials the group otherwise would not have had. Cape Coalwood was one of those resources. With the goal of keeping rockets from landing in the town of Coalwood, Hickam Sr. would allow the Big Creek Missile Agency (BCMA) to set up shop on a remote piece of company property. What used to be a slack dump would become home to scientific success that no one could have seen coming.
Cape Coalwood, named after NASA launch site Cape Canaveral, started out with nothing more than open space but the BCMA began building everything they needed to successfully launch rockets. Hickam Sr. would somewhat unwillingly provide a lot of materials for the completion of Cape Coalwood, to include cement for the launch pad. BCMA would also build a blockhouse to safely launch the rockets from. Cape Coalwood would be home to the BCMA until the boys flew their final rocket.
“We walked out on the gritty surface of the dump. Bulldozers had flattened millions of tons of coal tailings to create a black desert that stretched far down the narrow valley. No tree, not even a blade of grass grew on it. “If you want to fire off your rockets, here’s the place,” Dad said. “Nobody in town can see or hear you. You’ve got the entire valley.” I gaped at the huge, flat black space. “How long is it?” “About a mile, more or less.” I peered down the sun-baked dump and then at the surrounding mountains, my imagination clicking into overdrive.”
-excerpt from the book Rocket Boys
After the BCMA stopped using Cape Coalwood and the boys went off to college the pad continued to be returned to nature and became covered like any other field in the mountains of West Virginia. Some shelters were built there for the October Sky Festival, but have since deteriorated with the festival moving to Beckley West Virginia in 2012.
Welcome to Coalwood, West Virginia!. . Accessed April 07, 2018.
Hickam, Homer H. Rocket Boys. Delatorre Press.