What is the significance of Sonny's 1958 Christmas gift in October Sky?

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For Christmas in 1958, Sonny receives an autographed photograph of "Dr. Wernher von Braun with a personal note in his own handwriting." Von Braun was a famed rocket scientist who was one of the leaders in the United States space program in the years immediately following the successful launch of the Russian satellite Sputnik. Sonny's mother had written to Von Braun about Sonny and his interest in developing a rocket on his own, and Von Braun had written back to congratulate him on "the success with (his) rockets, suggesting that (he) continue (his) education and perhaps...one day find a job in the space business."

The photograph and note were a source of huge encouragement to Sonny. They were a tangible connection between his own humble experiments and the actual technology being developed in the greatest scientific organizations of the United States. The correspondence opened up a whole world of possibility for Sonny, making him feel that he really might, someday, work among the best and the brightest in the nation towards advancements in space travel and research. Sonny had never received "such a wonderful present, (and) for the remainder of the Christmas break, (he) read and reread von Braun's note," showing it to everyone important in his life. When he returned to school after Christmas, Sonny took the photograph and letter with him, showing it to Quentin at lunch in the auditorium. The gifts made the "brains" behind the Rocket Boys also believe that their efforts were potentially significant, and Quentin touched the items "like they were holy artifacts," responding to them "in reverence and awe" (Chapter 12).

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