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?”
I glanced at the ceiling. “Far, far away.”
I went after a few other supplies, mainly epoxy glue and a small model-rocket motor from a hobby store.
Barbie’s dimensions were perfect for flight. She was tall and slim, a very aerodynamic design. Her long legs were perfect stabilizers. The only problem I saw to her liftoff was the location of the rocket motor. She had to be perfectly balanced or her flight might turn erratic. I made a careful study of her trim, weighing and balancing to determine her center of gravity. Results indicated that the best location for the motor was on her stomach, nestled in her cleavage. But Frank said that would look like Barbie was glued face-first to a stove pipe. I decided to let art rule over sound engineering principles and placed the motor on her back. To stabilize her, I used a couple of Frank’s smallest fishing sinkers, artfully glued to her buttocks.
“Won’t her legs melt?” Linda asked. She was right. A heat shield was required. Barbie’s gingham dress was traded for an aluminum foil pants and blouse. She sure looked snazzy.
Frank and I scooped out a launch pad on the driveway. Old Joe, Frank’s bird dog, was designated our range recovery crew. To my surprise, an audience quickly gathered. Before we got down to business, everybody wanted to take a look at Rocket Barbie. “The Incredible Hulk might fly even better,” said Al Cunningham, an engineering professor. “He’s broad of back. Might take on an engine better than your slim Barbie here.”
“Nothing can fly like a Barbie,” I retorted, with the assurance of the truly ignorant.
I positioned Rocket Barbie on her launch rod. Frank ran the ignition wires back a few feet.
I pushed the launch button and the rocket on Barbie’s back spewed a shower of sparks. As if waving goodbye, she spun around the rod once, and then, her hands pointing skyward, Barbie hurtled upward with a grand whoosh! The crowd gasped. Old Joe began to bark. Up she went, until she disappeared into the night sky.
“Oh, look!” Rachel cried. “Barbie flew right out of her shoes!” There on the driveway sat Barbie’s tiny shoes. Somewhere high above, a barefoot Rocket Barbie flew. Then I heard her rocket give out a last gasp. Barbie had turned ballistic and was on her way down. “Go get her, Joe!” Frank cried, and our recovery crew bounded off.
A few minutes later, Old Joe reappeared out of the snow, Barbie clamped in his jaws. Her aluminum pants were a little scorched and her hair was in disarray, but otherwise she was unharmed. I took Frank’s dollar, then gave it back to him, since he’d helped build Rocket Barbie. I held her aloft for all to admire. Old men took off their hats, women sobbed into their scarves, and little boys and girls ran in excitement. At least, that’s the way I remember it.