IN 1995, HAVING WORKED FOR over a year at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, designing the payload training curriculum for the International Space Station, I was ready for a vacation. My wife Linda and I decided to visit our friends Frank and Naomi Stewart and Naomi’s daughter, Rachel, in Bozeman, Montana, a grand place to relax. For the first three days, we spent every waking hour on the slopes. On the fourth day, a spring blizzard struck. Frank and I felt we’d best prepare for the storm, which we did mainly by opening the occasional bottle of wine. Frank, also an engineer, perused an article I had written for Air & Space that became the book Rocket Boys and then the film October Sky. He lifted a critical eye. “Can you still build a rocket, Homer?”
“Why, it’s like swimming,” I said. “Once you build a rocket, you never forget. Building a rocket is about as simple a thing as there is.”
The truth was, I hadn’t built a rocket for 35 years. But I wasn’t going to let that stop me. At that moment I spied a Barbie doll belonging to Rachel. “Frank, old boy,” I said, “I can not only still build a rocket. I can make anything into a rocket, including that doll.”
“Well, put your money where your mouth is, NASA boy!” Frank roared, slapping down a whole dollar bill.
The next day we slipped and slid to a department store, where I expected to find your standard Barbie. Instead, I was astonished to discover a Skating Star Barbie, Shopping Spree Barbie, Valentine Barbie, Teacher Barbie, Biker Barbie, and Picnic Barbie. After watching Frank and me furtively casing the doll section, a clerk advised us that these were just a few of hundreds of choices. “Is there a Rocket Barbie?” I asked.
The clerk thought for a moment, then said, “Why, dear, I don’t believe there is.”
“Well, there is now,” I told her, and chose the ponytailed Picnic Barbie, mainly because she was the cheapest.
“She has accessories,” the clerk said.
“Oh, she won’t need any accessories where she’s going,” I replied.
She gave me a suspicious look. “And where is that?”