October Sky marked race for high ground

  • Published
  • By Col. Jennifer Moore
  • 21st Operations Group commander
This weekend, I watched one of my favorite movies, "October Sky." I thought it was appropriate because the movie springboards off of one of the most significant dates in space history - Oct. 4, 1957.

You see, 54 years ago this past Tuesday, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, the world's first artificial satellite, into orbit around the earth. The beach ball-sized spacecraft weighed 184 pounds and carried onboard a radio beacon that transmitted a beeping signal back to the ground, clearly sending a message to the United States and the world that the Soviet Union had been first to reach the high ground of space. The launch caught our country off guard and stirred fears of Soviet domination of space.

The launch of Sputnik marked a turning point for the United States and its own quest for space. While our country had already invested in the Vanguard program designed to launch a similar, but smaller, satellite into orbit the following year, the launch of Sputnik spurred the Explorer program. Driven by an intense desire to catch up with the Russians, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the Army Ballistic Missile Agency designed and built the Explorer-I satellite and retrofitted the Jupiter missile that would be its launch vehicle in only 84 days. Explorer-I was successfully launched into orbit Jan. 31, 1958. Without a doubt, the race for superiority in space, the ultimate high ground, was on.

The movie "October Sky" recounts this period in history through the true story of Homer Hickam, a young man growing up in Coalwood, W.V., and dreaming of escaping his small town and the coalmines that threatened to be his life's work. Against all odds, Homer and his three friends, The Rocket Boys, set off on their own quest to become amateur rocketeers. Though challenged by lack of tools, resources and support from Homer's dad, the boys persevere and ultimately submit their rocket design and launch results into the National Science Fair. Through dedication, commitment and perseverance, the boys go on to win first prize and more importantly, they win college scholarships that allow all four of them to go on to college and personal success. Homer is able to remain true to his dream and eventually becomes an engineer working for NASA training space shuttle astronauts.

So why do I share these two stories with you? That answer is easy. Both stories are perfect examples of what it means to dominate the high ground, first on the national level and second, on a personal level.

The space race began in 1958, but it kicked into high gear in the early 1960s when President Kennedy challenged us a nation. He said, "We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too." Dominating the high ground of space in the '60s meant dedicating our best energies, our concerted efforts and our collective imaginations to do something that had never been done before. Since then, our country has stayed true to the dream of space and people count on GPS, weather satellites and satellite communications the same way they count on water and electricity.

While the race was won by the United States as a nation, it took individuals like Homer Hickam, who dominated his own high ground, to get us there. They were committed, creative people who owned the dream and believed in the possibility of being part of something bigger than themselves. Homer would not be deterred. He risked everything to stay true to his dream and committed himself to succeed. When Homer and his friends won their scholarships, the real work (beyond the story on the movie screen) really began. Homer tells his dad in the movie, "I've got it in me to be somebody" and he never shrinks from the challenge of living up to his full potential.

Each and every one of us serving in the Air Force today have already committed ourselves to our country, something beyond our own success. We have committed ourselves to keeping our Air Force the strongest in the world and our country the beacon of freedom. That fuels my own desire to be the very best I can be, to take ownership of the daily challenges I face and commit myself to giving the 21st Operations Group, my mission and my people, my all.

So, where are you? What's your high ground? What kind of commitment are you willing to make? The choice is up to you.