"From 1946 to 1991, the U.S. was locked in a Cold War with Russian Communism. The Soviets claimed that Communism was the wave of the future and that it would bury capitalism, democracy, and the United States. Russia and Communism were a serious threat to the U.S. and the Western democracies.
In the 1950s, the United States believed that its technology was the best in the world. We had more cars than any country in the world. We had the best televisions, refrigerators, record players and a host of other consumer goods. At that time U.S. factories were building these products. Japan was still recovering from WW II and China was still undeveloped. We had been first with the atomic bomb and first with the hydrogen bomb. Our airplanes and jet fighters were the best in the world. We thought that our military equipment was better than the Russians'. Americans took comfort in the belief that we had the best scientists and engineers that ever lived.
The belief in American technical superiority changed in 1958. Sputnik was the first man-made satellite to orbit the earth. It was sent up, not by the Americans, but by the Russians. Americans looked up to see a Communist star traversing the heavens and realized that in the important arena of space, our technology was inferior to that of the Russians. People worried about what would happen if the Russians put an atomic bomb on one of their satellites. This insecurity deepened as the first several U.S. efforts to orbit a satellite failed miserably. Rockets exploded on the launch pads or they crashed soon after lift-off. All of this occurred live on world-wide television. It was more than embarrassing. It was frightening.
For years, the Soviets led the space race, hoisting larger payloads into space than the U.S., including the first animal in space and the first man in space. All of this occurred during one of the most distrustful and competitive periods of the Cold War. The launch of Sputnik shook the United States to its roots.
"October Sky" shows one boy's reaction to this event. The story told by this movie is pretty much true.
The movie takes place in a coal town in West Virginia. Coal towns existed for the sole purpose of mining coal. Everything in the town was owned by the coal company: the stores, the church, the schools and the houses in which the miners lived. If a miner was incapacitated and could no longer work, his family was forced to move out of their company owned house, which meant leaving town. Often, when the father was injured, the children had to work in the mines to pay the rent and remain eligible to live in company owned housing. If a miner died in the mines, his family had a very short time (usually two weeks) to move. The coal company didn't want the grim reminders of the dangers of the mine to be around too long. Coalwood, where Homer lived, was one of the better company towns, but it was still subject to harsh practices by the mine owners.
In a mine, coal dust pollutes the air and literally covers everything. A common ailment among miners is black lung disease (pneumoconiosis) caused by inhaling coal dust. Homer's father was suffering from this disease. The mine owners refused to compensate miners for this occupational hazard, so the Federal Government stepped in and set up a health and worker's compensation plan for the miners."