After watching Sputnik arc across the Appalachian sky, Hickam decided to build a rocket. Joined by three friends, Hickam and the Rocket Boys used trial and error to construct a rocket that eventually climbed 15,000 feet.
Everyone in the coal-mining community provided support (except the coal-mining foreman, who happened to be Hickam's father). Homer Hickam won a gold and silver award at the National Science Fair for high school students in 1960 and ended up fulfilling his life's dream of working as an aerospace engineer at NASA.
In the epilogue to "Rocket Boys," Hickam writes: "All of us rocket boys would go to college, something not likely in pre-Sputnik West Virginia."
Unfortunately, it is not likely in post-Sputnik West Virginia either.
The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education issues a national report card for higher education called "Measuring Up."
According to the 2006 report card for West Virginia, only 18 percent of residents aged 25 to 65 have a bachelor's degree and "this substantially weakens the state economy."
Along with Louisiana, West Virginia earned a grade of D+, the lowest grade awarded, for having such a poor performance in relation to other states. The good news is at least the percentage is increasing, up from 14 percent in 1992.
Our neighboring states of Maryland and Virginia both earned an A in terms of having well-educated residents. I don't condone cheating in school, but maybe West Virginia should start copying off Maryland and Virginia.
Other grades for West Virginia are equally discouraging: C- for preparing students to succeed in college; C- in the proportion of students enrolling in higher education and F for affordability of higher education.
The launch of Sputnik in 1957 was a wake-up call that science and engineering programs in the United States needed improvement. The Measuring Up report for 2006 should be a wake-up call for West Virginia.
More high school students should be attending college.
The current state slogan for West Virginia is "Open for Business." Unless West Virginia proves it is open for higher education, the only businesses the state will attract are ones seeking an answer to that age old question: "Do you want fries with that?"
Lyn Widmyer is a Charles Town, W.Va., resident who writes for The Herald-Mail. Her e-mail address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.