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"October Sky" was Homer Hickam's slightly fictionalized memoir of growing up in a desperately poor area of West Virginia where the main source of income for residents of the town, the coal mine, provided little financial sustenance while threatening lives on a daily basis with the possibility of a mineshaft explosion or cave-in.
In addition to the story of Hickam's upbringing in this depressed environment, "October Sky" is set against the backdrop of the Cold War-era space race. Hickam's decision to study and construct rockets stemmed from his fascination with the rockets being developed to launch satellites and, eventually, people into space. The Soviet Union's October 1957 launch of the Sputnik satellite ("Sputnik" translates as "satellite") created tremendous concern in the United States that this country was falling behind in the race to dominate space, and the fear that the threat to the United States from the Soviet Union had grown immeasurably.
Hickam dedicated his life to rocketry, and spent his professional career with the National Astronautics and Space Administration (NASA). Categorizing his book is a little difficult, because he employed plot contrivances like merging real-life people into composite characters, despite the fact that the story is an accurate representation of his life. Consequently, it does not qualify as historical fiction; it should more appropriately be considered a memoir.
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