The Big Creek Missile Agency

The short story that became the movie October Sky.

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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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