It was 50 years ago this month that the first artificial satellite entered space. While I was excited about a satellite, I was disappointed that the first one did not belong to us. I was already into my hobby of astronomy and rocketry and was building rockets made of aluminum which were somewhat dangerous.
One summer I bought 5 pounds of zinc dust and sulfur while I was visiting my brother in Tulsa and brought it back on the train. I guess today I would be considered a terrorist.
My only explosion occurred when I decided to test a small amount of fuel in our garage which was out back of our house. I put a very small amount of each fuel on a piece of paper and lit the paper and nothing happened. I added a little more sulfur, lit the paper and stepped back.
This time there was an explosion that blew open the garage doors and smoke pour out, filling the air with the smell of sulfur. My mother came out, and I assured her that everything was OK.
She never told my dad, thank goodness.
My rockets never exploded but would sometimes fly erratically. I did not have access to machined nozzles and had to use plumbing reducers. On one occasion, while my friends and I were on the top of a small hill getting to launch my rocket, a police car came up the hill. He wanted to know what we were doing.
I told him and handed a rocket to him. After examining it, he told us to be careful and he drove off.
As I grew older, I followed every space flight and rocket launch that I could. One of my biggest thrills was meeting my hero Warner Von Braun at Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville. He advised me to stay in school, and that sounded great because I wanted to work for NASA.
While I never got to work for NASA, after a year in the army, I did go to college and stayed in school for 35 years teaching, so far.
Just before I was to graduate from college, Homer Sharp invited me to come over to Newton High School to meet Joe Croom.
I sat in on one of his science classes and watched him work his magic. I thought to myself, now this would be a job doing what I like most, talking about physics, astronomy and rocketry. So it didn't take much for Mr. Sharp to sign me to a contract, and I spent many years teaching alongside Joe.
Joe and I would meet our students out in a large field on Saturdays, and we would fire our rockets which were safer than those home-made ones of the '50s. But occasionally a rocket would explode or go out of control.
One rocket went out of control, and we all had to jump in a big ditch. I remember Joe saying, "I just knew that thing was going to wrap around my neck."
I had the pleasure to have a student in my class, Skip Williams. His love of astronomy was as great as mine, and we eventually built an observatory at Newton.
I now teach astronomy at Oxford College thanks to my astronomy buddy Bill McKibben. Bill and I have been looking through telescopes since the '70s.
I have seen a lot of changes in astronomy and space travel.
We have gone to the moon and explored other planets and their satellites with probes. We have detected Black Holes and are discovering planets revolving around other stars. Today's telescopes have gotten larger, and they can tell you where you are and go where you tell them to go. Amateurs are taking photos today that are unbelievable, and they are contributing to research projects.
I owe a lot to my mentors, Mr. Sharp and Joe Croom, the best you could have. I am glad to have been a child of the space age.
Jim Honeycutt is a former Newton County science teacher and a part-time astronomy instructor at Oxford College of Emory University.