October Sky is a 1999 American biographical drama film directed by Joe Johnston and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper, Chris Owen, and Laura Dern. The screenplay by Lewis Colick, based on the memoir of the same name, tells the true story of Homer H. Hickam Jr., a coal miner's son who was inspired by the launch of Sputnik 1 in 1957 to take up rocketry against his father's wishes and eventually became a NASA engineer.
October Sky is based on the lives of four young men who grew up in Coalwood, West Virginia. Principal photography took place in rural East Tennessee, including Oliver Springs, Harriman and Kingston in Morgan and Roane counties. The film was a moderate box office success and received very positive critical reception; it continues to be celebrated in the regions of its setting and filming.
October Sky is an anagram of Rocket Boys, the title of the 1998 memoir upon which the film is based. It is also used in a period radio broadcast describing Sputnik 1 as it crossed the "October Sky". Homer Hickam said that "Universal Studios marketing people got involved and they just had to change the title because, according to their research, women over thirty would never see a movie titled Rocket Boys." The book was later re-released with the name in order to capitalize on interest in the film.
In October 1957, news of the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik 1 reaches the town of Coalwood, West Virginia, where most male residents work in the coal mines. As the townspeople gather outside to see the satellite orbit across the sky, Homer Hickam is inspired to build his own rockets to escape the tedium of Coalwood. His family and classmates do not respond kindly, especially his father John, the mine superintendent, who wants Homer to join him in the mines.
Homer teams up with math geek Quentin Wilson, who shares an interest in aerospace engineering; with the support of friends Roy Lee Cooke and Sherman O'Dell, and their science teacher at Big Creek High School, Miss Freida J. Riley, the four construct small rockets. While their first launches fail, they experiment with new fuels and designs and eventually succeed. Though the local paper runs a story about the boys, they are accused of starting a wildfire with a stray rocket and are arrested. After John picks up Homer, Roy Lee is beaten by his abusive stepfather, Vernon. John intervenes and rescues Roy Lee, warning Vernon that he will protect Roy Lee as Roy Lee's late father would have.
In the aftermath of the arrest, the boys are dejected and abandon rocketry, destroying their launch site. In a mining accident, John is injured rescuing others, and Ike Bykovsky (a mine worker who let Homer use the machine shop for fabricating rocket components, and later transferred underground for better pay) is killed. Homer drops out of high school to work in the mine and provide for his family while his father recovers.
Later, Homer is inspired by Miss Riley to read a book on applied rocket science, learning to calculate the trajectory of a rocket. Using this, he and Quentin locate their missing rocket and prove it could not have caused the fire. The boys present their findings to Miss Riley and the school principal, Mr. Turner, who determines the cause was a flare from a nearby airfield. Homer returns to school by special invitation; the boys return to rocketry and win the school science fair. When the opportunity arises for one of them to participate in the National Science Fair in Indianapolis, they elect Homer.
The miner's union goes on strike against the coal company, angering John. While the family eats dinner, Vernon shoots into the kitchen but misses John, who dismisses his family's fears, leading to a heated argument with Homer. With the mines set to close and resenting his father's pressures, Homer storms out of the house, vowing never to return.
At the national science fair, Homer's display is well-received, and he enjoys popularity and some sightseeing. Overnight, someone steals his machined rocket part model – the de Laval nozzle – and his autographed picture of Dr. Wernher von Braun. Homer makes an urgent phone call home to his mother Elsie, who implores John to end the ongoing strike so that Mr. Bolden, Bykovsky's replacement, can use the machine shop to build a replacement nozzle. John relents when Elsie, fed up with his lack of support for their son, threatens to leave him. With the town's support and replacement parts quickly sent to Indianapolis by bus, the boys win the top prize and Homer is bombarded with college scholarship offers. He is also congratulated by Von Braun himself, though not realizing his idol's identity.
Homer returns to Coalwood as a hero and visits Miss Riley, who is dying of Hodgkin's lymphoma. At the launch of their largest rocket yet – the Miss Riley – John, who never attended any of the launchings, shows up at the last moment and is given the honor of pushing the launch button. The Miss Riley reaches an altitude of 30,000 feet (9,100 m) – higher than the summit of Mount Everest. As the town looks up to the skies, John slowly puts his hand on Homer's shoulder and smiles, finally showing Homer that he is proud of him.
An epilogue, using home movie footage, reveals the real life outcomes of the main characters' lives.