Chapter 1: Coalwood
An introduction to the town of Coalwood, this chapter begins by explaining that the town of Coalwood was at war with itself. It then describes nearly every building and major person in Coalwood, showing it as a far better than average mining town, and also in many ways, a typical small town centered around a single industry. By the end of this chapter, it has begun to focus on the Hickam family as well as beginning to show some of the cracks.
Chapter 2: Sputnik
Beginning with the radio broadcast telling the American people of the launch of Sputnik, this chapter tells of life in the town of Coalwood in the few days after Sputnik. It mixes well with the life of the young boy and the events, both world-changing and far more personal, that are affecting his world.
The struggle with both father and brother, the difficulty with girls, learning about rockets, and the worry about the Russians are all shown in this chapter. Finally, the second chapter of "October Sky" ends with Sonny Hickam and his friends attempting to make and launch their own rocket in his backyard.
Chapter 3: Mom
Having made his first attempt to launch a rocket, Sonny Hickam destroyed his mother’s fence and scared most of the town with the explosion. Instead of punishment, his mother saw a chance to help her son escape from Coalwood. He would build a real rocket and convince his father that he was smart enough for college. This combined with the knowledge that his father expected that he would simply work as a clerk for the mine for the rest of his life, and his mother’s belief that the mine and the town would disappear serves as a turning point for the story of "October Sky."
Chapter 4: The Football Fathers
With an undefeated season, the high school football team of Big Creek is forced out of the state championship. They attempt to sue the state but are turned down. This willingness to fight an unwinnable battle for his older son shows the gap between Sonny and his father even more clearly. In addition, his father begins to show signs of real sickness including a spot the size of a dime on his lungs.
Finally, at the end of this chapter, the Americans attempt their first spaceship launch. Vanguard made it only three yards off the ground before it blows up. This brings it back to the importance of Sonny Hickam’s own attempts to build a rocket.
Chapter 5: Quentin
The introduction of Quentin, an odd, but smart young boy who is quite unpopular because he is intelligent. He becomes Sonny’s partner, and a driving force, in building a rocket as the two learn about the history of the rocket and experiment with creating their own black powder. In addition, Sonny finally builds up the courage to ask out Dorothy, but while he does go to her house, he doesn’t quite get the chance to ask her out as she changes the subject when he tries.
Chapter 6: Mr. Bykovski
This chapter begins with the launch of the first successful United States satellite by the Army Ballistic Missile Agency. This moment is told through the eyes of young boys who stay up all night to see the images of the launch. The boys who watch it form their own organization, the Big Creek Missile Agency.
In this chapter, you can begin to see more of the conflict between Sonny Hickam and his father. His father has told him not to build the rockets but he does it anyway. In fact, he goes behind his father’s back to do it. This leads to the chapter’s title, "Mr. Bykovski," who is a welder on the night shift. He helps the boys even though he technically isn’t supposed to. To create the rockets, they need help with a few pieces of pipe. When the boys do finally successfully launch their rocket, one of them hits his father’s office. This bit of misfortune leads to his father calling the man who helped him a thief.
Chapter 7: Cape Coalwood
Continuing his battle with his father, Sonny Hickam has been ordered not to launch any more rockets. This doesn’t stop him though. Instead, they continue to test their black powder, filling pop bottles with it and measuring the explosion. This still bothers the people in the town though, who are very wary of explosions as the worry of the mine is clearly a major concern in the town.
This seems to come to a conclusion at the church. Here you see the battle between the father and son played out in front of the whole town. The pastor of the church does a sermon about fathers and sons. The sermon reminds everyone that while a son should respect his father, it is a father’s job to help his son achieve his dreams. This works at least well enough to convince Sonny’s father to give him a place to launch his rockets, even if he still isn’t happy about it.
Chapter 8: Construction of the Cape
The parallels between the construction of the USA’s rocket program and that of the Rocket Boys continues in this chapter, which begins with the failures and successes of the space program at this time, including the creation of NASA.
The biggest part of this chapter though is a bit of news that doesn’t seem, for now, to affect the Rocket Boys directly. Due to the lawsuit brought by the parents of the football team, the team has been suspended for the next year. This means, among other things, that Sonny’s brother is not going to be able to get a football scholarship and will have to find another way to go to college.
The chapter ends with the Rocket Boys beginning construction at their own cape, collecting the materials and building a small shack so that they can launch their rockets safely.
Chapter 9: Jake Mosby
This chapter begins with the introduction of someone who would be important to the Rocket Boys. An assistant engineer, Jake Mosby, whose father is wealthy and owns a considerable amount of the company that owns the mine. He appears at first to be a bad influence. He flew planes in the war and now spends his time with alcohol and women.
The story continues with the Rocket Boys finishing their cape and putting up notices of their launches. This brings out Jake, but also a few other people including a small town newspaper reporter.
The chapter ends with Jake giving the boys a gift of a telescope that he used as a boy, allowing them to see Jupiter and the stars. He also gives them a book on trigonometry so that they can discover how high their rockets are going.
Chapter 10: Miss Riley
Returning to school after having been in the newspaper, the Rocket Boys discover that they are treated a bit differently. The football players are no longer the heroes, and while they have not achieved the level of hero yet, they are better off.
The school curriculum has changed due to Sputnik with hours of homework every night. In addition to this, Sonny is trying to learn calculus and other math in order to be able to launch his rockets better.
Miss Riley is his chemistry teacher who one day shows them a chemical reaction they believe would be a good rocket fuel. She is able to let them use it, but they find an alternative and begin to experiment with a fuel they believe will be better than black powder.
Chapter 11: Rocket Candy
This chapter continues the battle between mother and father over Sonny, except that for the first time Sonny’s father appears to care about the battle. Beginning with the boys creating their new rocket candy fuel by mixing sugar and saltpeter with his mother, they are able to create rockets that’s main limitation is the oxidation of the metal.
At the same time, Sonny’s father invites him to come to the mine with him. Sonny knows he wants to be an engineer and his father sees the opportunity of him becoming a mine engineer. It ends with his mother discovering his father has taken him into the mine and insisting that he will never work in it. She is convinced that it has killed her husband who has a black spot on his lung and will not allow it to kill her son.
Chapter 12: The Machinists
After making peace with his mother over his trip into the mine, Sonny decides to take his father’s advice and ask Ike Bykovski about Wernher von Braun. This leads to a simple but vital discussion about the possibility of change, forgiveness and even the possibility that Sonny’s father might be jealous of Wernher von Braun.
After this, Sonny returns to his rocket building. He gets help from the machinists by trading favors for work. This comes mostly from aid his father gives him, though the man refuses to admit that he is aiding his son in this endeavor.
Their rockets are continuing to become successful reaching as much as three thousand feet on one trip, but they begin to fear that their rocket candy has reached its limitation. Yet more importantly, Sonny is beginning to believe that through hard work he can achieve anything. This is reinforced at Christmas when his mother gives him an autographed photo and note from Werner von Braun.
Chapter 13: The Rocket Book
Covering only a few days, this chapter gives the Rocket Boys one of the things that they had been looking for through the entire story. His chemistry teacher has gotten him a book which can show them more about how to build a rocket. She has been attempting to get them to go to the science fair throughout the story. She also tells him something vital, that she has gotten him the book, but he has to be the one with the courage to learn what is inside.
Having taken sleds to get to the school which was closed for anyone outside of walking distance, Sonny is left alone to return to his town. As he travels, the cold begins to get to him and he is stopped by a woman and invited into her house. She insists that he tell his father, but not his mother that she helped him.
Upon telling his father this story, he discovers two things. The first is that the woman sells moonshine and other things to men. The other is that his father pulled her out of a fire that killed everyone else in her family when he was a boy. His father does not see this as heroism though as he blames himself for not having saved any of the others.
Chapter 14: The Pillar Explosion
This chapter begins once again by setting the time — it happened not with dates but with the space race. In this case, the launch of Luna 1. This chapter covers two things. The first being the slow understanding of the rocket book which they have finally gotten, which covers ideas such as De Laval nozzles. They also become convinced that in order to really understand what is in the book, they will need to learn calculus — a class that is not offered by their school.
The other important point in this chapter is that there is a pillar explosion in the mine. No one is hurt, but Sonny understands better what that means now than he did before his trip into the mine. It also once again shows the character of his father who lead the rescue crew into the dangerous passages even though he didn’t need to.
Finally, it ends with a few more launches. This time, which is largely successful, they prove more than anything that they have reached the limit of what they are likely able to do with their current fuel.
Chapter 15: The State Troopers
Wanting to learn calculus means asking to have the class. The difficulty in this is that the school does not offer the class. They are a mining town high school and don’t think that they need it. Yet the teacher agrees if the principle will agree. The problem is that he knows the superintendent will not allow it.
When things seem to change, Sonny and Quentin are called into the principal’s office. Two state troopers have arrived because they believe that one of the boy’s rocket started a fire and burned down some homes. They are ready to arrest them, but their teachers point out a few problems in the logic. The most basic problem being that the place where the fire started was ten miles from the boys' rocket launching location. Quentin then explains that it is not a rocket at all but an aeronautics’ flare.
This seems to be enough to convince the principal to lobby for their class and he gets it for them. But the class has only six spots, raised from five so that all the boy’s in the club can take it. Except that seven people sign up for the class and Sonny, as the boy with the lowest grades, is excluded from the class — a difficulty he takes well even though he was the one who lobbied to get it in the school.
The chapter ends with Sonny discovering the book that his father used to help teach himself the math that he needed to run the mine and taking it for himself so that he can learn on his own.
Chapter 16: A Natural Arrogance
Chapter 16 of "October Sky" begins with Sonny’s father visiting a conference to discuss the ventilation of his mine — an honor for him because he is not an engineer. Upon returning, he discovers that Sonny has been excluded from the class he lobbied for and is using his book. This conversation doesn’t end well though as Sonny once again explains that he doesn’t want to be a mine engineer while his father still wants him to be.
The heart of this chapter though is in the decision to join the science fair. Sonny sees it as a no-lose situation. If they win, he can prove his father wrong; if they lose, he hasn’t actually lost anything. Quentin though explains that the other boys have far more to lose. They all want to go to college, but none of them have the money to go. The science fair may be their only real chance to pay to go to college, but in order for that to work, they have to win not only locally but make a real impression. This weight is something that Sonny wasn’t expecting in many ways, something he doesn’t want to carry.
Chapter 17: Valentine
The Rocket Boys decide that they need a break from building rockets. For this they go to the dugout, a small dancing hall where all the kids go. Here he discovers that his brother has taken the girl he has been in love with for years out on a date. He also discovers Valentine, a girl who he has been friends with but nothing more. She has an argument with one of the football players who brought her and takes Sonny to the back seat of his car.
As he is leaving he sees the boy, who has often tormented him in the past. He is quite upset about the girl, but Sonny knows it is more than that. He has been kept out of football this year, which means he has likely also been kept out of college, which means he will likely achieve far less in his life than he otherwise would have.
Finally, Sonny returns home to find that something has gone wrong. Everyone in the town has their lights on and his mother only tells him that no matter what happens, he cannot go to the mine that night.
Chapter 18: The Bump
Having discovered that something was wrong at the mine and that his father had went in, Sonny sneaks out of his house after his mother insists that he not go. It seems that lightning has struck one of the vents which caused a collapse. His father is leading the rescue crew.
Sonny watches until someone is brought out on a stretcher: Ike Bykovski, a man who was working in the mine, at least in part because he had helped Sonny to build rockets. Around this same time, his mother finds him. She is angry, calls him selfish and slaps him. This revelation of what his mother thinks of him magnifies the pain of seeing someone he cares about hurt.
Finally, everyone else comes out alive, but his father has been injured and will likely lose his eye. The black phone that goes to the mine rings, except this time his mother rips the phone from the wall and throws it out onto the lawn.
Chapter 19: Picking Up and Going On
After seeing Mr. Bykovski's death, Sonny blames himself and shuts down almost entirely. He refuses to talk to anyone and feels nothing. He yells at friends and tries to be what he thinks people from Coalwood are supposed to be. It is only when he finally speaks to Mrs. Bykovski that he begins to move beyond it. She explains that Ike could have returned to the machine shop if he wanted but they liked the money. She also insists that he would want Sonny to continue his rockets.
Even after this decision, Sonny is still angry. They launch their rocket and he declares afterward they will change the propellant, telling them he’s in charge and they’ll do what he wants. Eventually, this drives his friend Roy Lee to punch him. The physical pain of the punch allows Sonny to move pas the emotional pain and see things more clearly.
Chapter 20: O’Dell’s Treasure
Beginning chapter 20 is the story of a single day. Having learned his father’s eye will likely never be fully functional again, the house is largely broken with everyone ignoring everyone else. It is in part because of this that Sonny is late and must get a ride to school with Jake. In this way, the young man meets his teacher.
The majority of the chapter covers a trip that the Rocket Boys take to earn money. They go out to dig out metal pipes from the ground for scrap metal. As they do, Sonny’s wrist is cut on one of the sharp pieces of metal and they are forced to carry him miles back to town where he collapses as the doctor is stitching him. After this, they discover the metal hardly even covers the cost of food for their trip and doesn’t cover the stitches so they borrow the money they needed from Jake in return for waxing his car.
Chapter 21: Zincoshine
Far more people have now begun to show up to the Rocket Boys' launches as they become a more important point to the city of Coalwood. They seem to have reached the limit of their propellant’s abilities. This means that they will need a new try, but the zinc they want to use needs to be mixed.
After considering a few possibilities, the solution appears to be alcohol. So the boys go to the local moonshine makers for pure alcohol. Rather than telling him what they want it for, they get drunk.
Still it works well, perhaps too well, as their rocket reaches a mile allowing it to land in Coalwood. This gets the attention of one of the company men who tries to tear down Cape Coalwood, but the miners fight back and eventually so does Sonny’s dad.
Chapter 22: We Do the Math
With the resources of Coalwood largely behind them, everything comes down to the Rocket Boys. Without excuses, Sonny has to do the math to figure out the best possible way to create the nozzle of their rocket. This requires a lot of high level math that Sonny has to do.
After impressing his chemistry teacher with the math, she goes to the principle and after a quiz to ensure he knows what he’s talking about, they decide that he will represent the school at the science fair. The good news continues as one of the rockets lands in field of ginseng, which will help pay for the things they need.
While the Rocket Boys are going well, the town is not. The battle between the company and union have continue to rise until at the end of this chapter, a shot is fired into the house, barely missing Sonny’s father.
Chapter 23: Science Fairs
This chapter begins with Sonny’s parents deciding what to do about the gunshot. They choose not to call the police even though they are almost certain who it was that took the shot at him. Yet his mother isn’t simply willing to allow things to remain the same and announces she’s buying a house in Myrtle Beach with money she has saved and invested in the stock market.
Sonny also discovers that his science teacher has cancer. This strikes him hard because he really does like her, but it also makes a lot of sense since she has shown signs. More directly to him, this means that not only will she not be able to help much with the science fair. He is on his own, literally, since there can be only one name on the science fair signup.
During the local science fair, he fears that the local politics will make it difficult, as well as the judges' fear of encouraging rocketry because it is considered dangerous. He does win though, despite the fact that the local strike has began and the machinists helping him have to cross the picket line to do so.
This chapter ends with Sonny’s cat being killed and the realization by Sonny that the car that hit the cat was likely the same person who shot at his father. He also discovers the main troublemaker has left town and so decides it would be better off not knowing who had killed his cat.
Chapter 24: A Suit for Indianapolis
Planning for the trip to the National Science Fair, Sonny is taken to get a suit. While there, he sees John F. Kennedy, who is running for president. This is the first moment of the Rocket Boys and the bigger ideas begin to really intersect as he is given a chance to ask him a question. His question is simply "what do you think we should do with space," and Kennedy turns the question back on him. He answers with the simple idea that they should go to the moon.
Chapter 25: The National Science Fair
Sonny reaches the National Science Fair and discovers the competition is bigger than he had expected. With a lot of far more wealthy places represented, there are huge expensive science fair projects, and in general, the judges don’t like rockets because they are too dangerous. Even worse, he leaves his nozzles behind and they are stolen. This means he is forced to call his mother and ask the town to get him more before the next day when the judging begins. Here he meets someone who works with his hero Wernher von Braun and discovers that his hero is also at the science fair and begins to search for him.
While he is searching the floor unsuccessfully for his hero, the other students lobby successfully for a separate rocketry category. Sonny wins this thanks to the rush of new rocket parts from the town.
Chapter 26: All Systems Go
The last chapter of "October Sky" has Sonny back in town and the strike largely finished. But it also comes to the end of his high school career. In order to celebrate Sonny and the other Rocket Boys, they decide to launch off the last of their rockets.
Everyone in town and a lot of other towns come to see the rockets. Most importantly though is Sonny’s father. They launch off their rockets as everyone in the town celebrates. Then, for the final rocket, Sonny invites his father to fire it. This gives the two a moment together giving Sonny the last part of what he wanted the rockets to do.
- Hickam, Homer. October Sky. Random House Digital, 1999, https://books.google.com/books/about/October_Sky.html?id=vIUYaiNRg8UC
- Image Credit: H3photo3 by Homer Hickam under Public Domain