October Sky

The movie “October Sky,” is the true story of Homer Hickam, a retired NASA engineer and an author. The movie takes place in 1957, in the town of Coalwood, Virginia, and the Soviet satellite, Sputnik was just launched. After he saw it cross the sky above his home the 14-year old Homer suddenly fell in love with the idea of space travel. Sadly his father, John Hickam is the local coal mine’s boss, and he expects his son to follow in his footsteps because everyone who lives in this town usually succeeds at football or mining.

Homer starts building model rockets as a hobby, even against his father’s requests. Unfortunately, his first several rockets are an embarrassment. His first model rocket blows up his mother’s white picket fence. His next rockets blow up by simply exploding on the launch pad. Others make it a few feet in the air right before blowing up.

Homer and his friends felt a sense of losing hope but their interests to rocket science never diminished. Miss Frieda Riley, his science teacher, supported and encouraged Homer and his friends to continue on their course. The school science fair comes around and Miss Frieda Riley encourages them to enter. Homer goes through many obstacles at the county science fair and then winning to continue on to the national science fair.

Finally, Homer and his friends manage to construct a working rocket. It blasts off in the air and is found several miles away after it lands. Homer and the boys are overjoyed, as is Miss Riley. Word gets around and soon the whole town is spellbound with the notion of rockets and everyone shows up at Cape Coalwood field to see the launches. The whole town is watching, but the one person Homer expected to see never showed up, his father.

We believe that this movie, October Sky, deserves to receive a “GOOD PHYSICS” review. Although this movie didn’t involve too many scenes involving physics, the few scenes that contained physics were splendid. The first example is in the scene where Homer and Quentin are in the science lab conducting experiments, trying to figure out the propellant for their rocket. For their rockets they were able to observe that potassium chloride mixed with sugar and heat produces lots of good expanding gases which make a good propellant. They discuss with understanding terms of physics, which actually relate to the physics of their rocket. Though the audience may not have understood what was going on, intellectual physics students could comprehend the different formulas and observations of their rocket.

Our next example deals with the general concept of physics being discussed instead of observed. The scene is set as Homer proves to Mr. Turner that his rocket he had recently launched did not start the fire. He uses the equation of s= ½a(t ²) where s is the altitude, a is acceleration from gravity, and t is time. Even though the equations and calculations confuse Mr. Turner, he was able to prove that his rocket flew for about 14 seconds and at an acceleration of 32ft/s², that means the altitude was about 3000 feet, exactly what Homer said it was. Therefore he concluded that his rocket only had a range of 1.2 miles so they couldn’t have started the fire in the forest 3 miles away.

The last explanation of physics in the movie involves the description of how the DeLaval Nozzel (pictured below) work within the rocket engine. The key to the DeLaval nozzle is as the nozzle narrows, the gas speeds up. By carefully constructing the nozzle, the gas could be made to go at supersonic speeds just as it reaches the nozzle throat. Now traveling faster than the speed of sound, the gas would move into the divergent section of the nozzle. Because the gas was supersonic, its speed would increase again as the nozzle diverged. Newton’s third law shows why this creates thrust, the burning and expanding of the gas directs itself out the nozzle at high speeds which pushes the rocket through the air because for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

With the plot of the movie “October Sky” revolving around rocket science, they had an expectation to meet the standard physics of rockets. If the movie had a few more scenes dealing with physics, we may have been able to find a couple flaws, but the overall contributions to physics in the movie proved to be worthwhile. We, therefore declare the movie “October Sky” deserves a Good Physics rating.

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