The author wished the movie to be called "Rocket Boys," like the book it's based on, but the studio believed that title would not sell well. The compromise title "October Sky" works on two levels: it's the month when the hero is first inspired by Sputnik flying overhead, and it is an anagram of "Rocket Boys"!
In real life and in the novel "Rocket Boys," Quentin Wilson was a traditionally handsome looking boy, whereas Homer Hickam looked like the stereotypical "nerd" that the film's Quentin is made to look like. Their physical appearances were switched due to the casting of then-teen heartthrob Jake Gyllenhaal.
In the movie Homer Hickem is enamored with Wernher Von Braun a former Nazi scientist. In real life Wernher von Braun and Jake Gyllenhaal (who plays Homer) in the movie are actually distant cousins. They are both descendants of William the Conqueror.
The location of the slag dump where the Rocket Boys actually tested their rockets still exists. It is now a large grassy field. It is located in the actual town of Coalwood, WV which still exists today. They erected a replica test stand, launch pad, and "shed" after the movie brought the rocket boys story back into the public light. Every year the town of Coalwood celebrates the Rocket Boys with a festival in October called "October Sky Festival".
The town of Coalwood, West Virginia, has lost so many residents that it no longer holds the annual October Sky Festival. The event was moved to Beckley, West Virginia, in 2012 due to the lack of able-bodied volunteers remaining in Coalwood.
The boys rarely tested a single rocket per day. They often manufactured several rockets and tested them in sequence. The rocket that hit Homer's father's office during their early testing, when they were launching rockets near the mine, was actually the last rocket of several they launched that day.
When watching the Vanguard rocket failure on TV Homer writes a letter of condolence to Von Braun and his team for their failure in launching it. In reality the Vanguard was the U.S. Navy's project and it was selected over Von Braun and his team for launching America's first satellite. When the Vanguard failed Von Braun successfully launched America's first satellite using his own rocket.
The school exterior was actually two different schools - the football scene was shot in the soccer field of Gresham Middle School, Knoxville, Tennessee, and the other exterior scene, right before Homer and his friends are arrested, is the exterior of Fountain City Elementary school in Knoxville. The actual schools are directly across the street from each other.
In the steam engine scene where the boys are salvaging iron rails from unused rail lines, the Norfolk & Western coal hauling steam locomotive they see is the former Southern Railway engine #4501. This engine is currently in use at the Tennessee Valley Railroad in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The scenes with the locomotive were filmed in upper Tennessee around Harriman, Oliver Springs, and Lake City with engine #4501 pulling a string of coal hopper cars lettered in authentic N&W livery.