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Rockets and Roars

Homer Hickam is best known for his work as a NASA engineer and his memoir Rocket Boys, which inspired the movie October Sky, but Hickam’s contributions to the scientific community extend beyond the realm of space exploration. His lesser-known but equally fascinating foray into paleontology has unveiled a series of extraordinary discoveries, particularly in the realm of Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons.

Like most kids, Hickam’s passion for dinosaurs was sparked during his childhood in West Virginia. While Hickam’s professional career initially led him to the aerospace industry, his love for paleontology never waned.

In the late 1990s, filmmaker Joe Johnston was directing, October Sky, the film based on Hickam’s life growing up in the coal mining hills of West Virginia. At the time, Johnston was traveling to Montana doing research for his next film, Jurassic Park 3. Hickam convinced the director to let him tag along on a trip, where he met renowned paleontologist Jack Horner, and his interest was piqued.

Since then, Hickam embarked on a journey that would redefine his legacy in the scientific community. Despite lacking formal training in paleontology, Hickam’s innate curiosity and meticulous attention to detail set him apart.

“Ignorance is bliss,” Hickam explained. “I would go look in the places the professionals wouldn’t go. They’d say there were no dinosaurs there. And I’d go and find dinosaurs.

Hickam’s unconventional approach to paleontology emphasized collaboration between amateur enthusiasts and seasoned experts. Today, Hickam has discovered five of the 40 tyrannosaurus rex skeletons that have been found in the world.

This record of discover lead to his writing the novel, The Dinosaur Hunter. The book is about cowboys in Montana protecting the local people and the land beneath them filled with enough dinosaur fossils to stock a museum worth a fortune. Hickam based many of the characters in the book on the people he met in the Montana Badlands, where many dinosaur bones have been found.  

Homer Hickam’s journey into paleontology serves as a testament to the power of curiosity and the boundless possibilities that arise when individuals come together in pursuit of scientific knowledge. His discoveries of Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons not only expanded our understanding of prehistoric life but also inspire a new generation of scientists and fossil enthusiasts.

Learn more about Hickam and other scientists, engineers, and professionals from the space and aeronautics field by subscribing to “Dare to Explore,” the official podcast of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center Foundation. “Dare to Explore” can be found on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and anywhere else you listen.


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