Where Spirits & Rockets Soar
It is a sunny morning in Birmingham, Ala., and the sky is filled with colorful rockets. Rashad, 8, strains his eyes, searching for the tiny missile he launched just seconds before on a plume of white smoke. “I see it!” he cries and scampers across the grass after the rocket, now dangling from a red-and-white parachute and drifting slowly to earth.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen him run so fast or grin so big!” says Rashad’s mother, Patricia Agee, a single parent who struggles to keep her children away from neighborhood gangs and drug dealers. Beside her, Ron Witherspoon—the man who runs these weekend launches—nods. “We’ve got him,” he says. “We’ve got your young man.”
Witherspoon then encourages Rashad to join the Birmingham Rocket Boys, the club he founded to get young people at risk to aim high in life. “I find them wherever I can—on the streets, in schools and in detention centers,” says Witherspoon, 57, a church youth minister and county juvenile officer. “Then I give them something they never imagined they could have: a passion for science and a belief in themselves, all wrapped up in the fun of model rocketry.”
His passion is fueled by personal experience as well. Witherspoon, who has five children, believes he could have done a better job as a parent. “I got too busy and lost a couple of my children to the streets,” he admits. “Then their kids got into trouble. That’s why my wife and I are raising our great-granddaughter. I’m going to help every kid I can. Rocketry is my answer, and it’s working.”
A longtime space buff, Witherspoon learned rocketry in California. When he returned to his home state, he and his best friend, Trennon Nickerson, started building rockets at Birmingham Landfill, where Nickerson worked. It became their Cape Canaveral. Word spread, though there was some initial skepticism. “Black people in Birmingham didn’t build rockets,” notes Witherspoon, laughing. “But we were good at it.”
He was inspired to form his club in 2003 after learning the story of some youngsters in a West Virginia mining town who built rockets. “They didn’t let anything stop them,” Witherspoon explains. “Then all of them went to college. I got the message!”
The club, which welcomes the young and old, is under the auspices of the National Association of Rocketry, a group dedicated to teaching the science under safe conditions. Two real rocket scientists from NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center—Vince Huegele and Chuck Pierce—volunteer their time.
Educators say that model rocketry teaches organization, communication skills and teamwork. It also instills confidence. “When my students build rockets and fly them, they learn surprising things,” says Jeffrey Willis, an eighth-grade teacher who works closely with Witherspoon. “For instance, they wanted to know how high their rockets flew. So I told one student to get the angle at the top of the flight. Then we all figured out the altitude. I asked, ‘Have you ever heard of trigonometry?’ They all thought it was something hard to learn. When I told them they had just worked a trig problem, you should have seen how happy they were! That’s all it takes. That one spark.”
“Most of the kids I see in detention centers don’t have fathers at home, and some have no parents at all,” says Witherspoon. “But when I mention rockets, their eyes go bright. When I show them video or photos of our launches, there are all these oohs and ahs! It’s like one switch gets turned off—the one that fills them with rage—and another gets turned on. They start to see possibilities and find passion inside themselves for something good. They start looking up.”
Homer Hickam is the best-selling author of “Rocket Boys,” on which the movie “October Sky The Birmingham Rocket Boys are grateful for the wonderful Parade article that was written by Homer Hickam Jr., who is a dear friend and supporter of our club. We are also grateful for the Parade editors and staff who found our story worthy to publish in their popular nationally syndicated magazine.
Inspired by Homer’s movie “October Sky” and his book “Rocket Boys” , we set out to start a club whose ultimate goal was to teach kids how to build and safely fly model rockets. As a chartered section and proud member of the National Association of Rocketry, we are dedicated to this task.