It is Saturday, and Homer is preparing to melt the rock candy to try and create an efficient rocket fuel. He has borrowed a hot plate from his mother, and is standing in an alley near his garage. Using a wooden spoon, he places a small amount of saltpeter in a pot on the hotplate and heats it slowly. Then, he adds some sugar, which slowly melts, until the mixture is thick and milky white.
Homer is young and reckless, but his interest in rocket science also is so great that he’s willing to endanger his life. His behavior parallels that of Homer Sr., who loves mining so much that he ruins his lungs staying at work long after the doctors recommend that he retire.
Elsie asks the boys if they need help—when she sees that they’re melting rocket fuel, she helps them scrape it into a rocket tube, seemingly unaware of how much danger she’s in. Homer turns to draw more of the fuel from the pot, which is a mistake—when he jerks the pot suddenly, it explodes high into the air, luckily leaving no one hurt. Elsie tells Homer to buy her a new pot, but surprisingly, she doesn’t seem particularly angry or frightened.
It’s strange that both Elsie and Homer seem nonplussed by their close shave. Perhaps Elsie has come to trust Homer with his experiments, or perhaps she’s just glad to see him hard at work with his rockets, as she had encouraged him to be.
Later in the day, Homer comes home to find his father sitting in his easy chair. Homer Sr. asks Homer if he’s thinking of becoming an engineer, and Homer isn’t sure how to respond. Homer Sr. advises that Homer will need to learn about far more than rockets if he’s to become an engineer. He mutters that rocket scientists are “burning up” government money with their wild experiments in Cape Canaveral. Homer Sr. then tells Homer his “plan” (but for the time being, Homer doesn’t reveal to the reader what this plan is).
Homer Sr.’s myopia about rocket science and Cape Canaveral is infuriating: we, reading Rocket Boys half a century after a man walked on the moon, recognize that NASA was tremendously useful and accomplished a great deal. Homer Sr., on the other hand, doesn’t approve of the government investing large sums of money in projects like the Space Race.
The narrative jumps ahead to the next rocket launch. At the launchpad, Basil is scribbling, and there at least fifty other spectators watching as the BCMA prepares for its latest launch. Homer notices that the crowd is shouting “Go Big Creek!” as if the BCMA is the football team.
The symbolism of this scene is clear: Homer and his “team” of Rocket Boys has replaced the football team in the hearts of the Big Creek High School students. They are clearly looking for some kind of distraction, and something to cheer for and support.
The BCMA launches Auk XII, which features the half-melted rocket fuel. The launch is a success at first, but while Auk XII is still in the air, it loses its nozzle. However, the launch is a useful step forward, because Quentin uses trigonometry to calculate the height the rocket attains—over 750 feet. Auk XIII doesn’t go as high as its predecessor, but while it’s in the air, Homer has an important insight: the nozzles aren’t working efficiently because of oxidation. Quentin excitedly confirms that Homer is right—they’ll need to find a fuel that is rust-resistant.
Homer continues to prove himself worthy of being a rocket scientist—he recognizes, before even Quentin does so, that oxidation is reducing the rockets’ effectiveness. It’s also noteworthy that Quentin begins to use trigonometry to calculate the rockets’ height—he’s using “pure” mathematics to calculate practical things.
Suddenly, a group of football players, led by Buck, drives toward the BCMA’s blockhouse and begins tearing it apart with fire irons. The BCMA yells and tries to defend its building. Then there’s the sound of a car horn, and Tag Farmer appears, driving his usual vehicle. He asks Homer what’s going on—but rather than turn Buck in, Homer lies and says that he was “cleaning.” Buck lies as well, saying that he was rebuilding the blockhouse. Tag chuckles and advises Buck to try harder. He watches as Buck and the rest of his football gang repairs the blockhouse.
Here, more than ever, it’s becoming clear that the town is turning against the football crowd and throwing its support instead to the young, bookish scientists of the BCMA. At the same time, we see that Homer and his friends have an old-fashioned kind of honor, as they refuse to rat out Buck and his gang to Tag. In the end, this doesn’t matter at all, as Tag sees what’s going on and punishes Buck in kind.
It is Sunday, and Homer Sr. is about to execute his “plan.” Homer stays home from Sunday school, and walks to the “tipple” (hill) where Homer Sr. is waiting to take him into the mine. Homer is excited about this trip, since 1) he’s never been before and 2) Homer Sr. has never shown much interest in showing him before. Homer Sr. reminds Homer not to mention the trip to the mine to Elsie, and Homer nods.
As Homer immerses himself in rocket science, he seems to be slowly gaining more love and respect from his father. It’s as if Homer Sr. is impressed with Homer simply for studying anything with such devotion—what he studies in particular isn’t as important—unless it’s mining.
Homer Sr. shows Homer around the coalmine. He explains that engineers are a vital part of the mine—they’re needed to test the rock for fortitude, and measure whether or not it’s feasible to drill deeper into the ground. Homer Sr. explains that he’s not an engineer because he has no degree—nevertheless, he’s designed some important aspects of the mine, such as the ventilation shafts. He advises Homer to go to college and obtain an engineering degree. As Homer Sr. and his son talk, Mr. Dubonnet passes by. Homer Sr. informs Dubonnet that Homer is thinking of becoming an engineer, information which Dubonnet clearly finds disappointing.
Homer gets a better sense of his father’s life and career. Homer Sr. has accomplished impressive things: he’s ascended to an engineer’s job without ever holding an engineering degree, and has maintained this job for many years. Nevertheless, Homer’s admiration for his father doesn’t translate into a desire to emulate his father’s career path. Mr. Dubonnet’s presence reminds us that there’s still a tremendous distance between Homer and Homer Sr., as Homer continues to rely on “father-figures” instead.
Homer Sr. tells Homer to stay for the mine’s latest “operation.” He leads him deep into the mine, where there is an enormous “mining machine.” The machine is constantly drilling into the ground, Homer Sr. explains, and the operator always has to be thinking about where to drill next. This, Homer Sr. concludes, is “real engineering.” He loves the mine, he continues, because he enjoys the sense of excitement and admires miners above all other kinds of people. Homer is thrilled to see his father opening up to him.
In much the same way that Homer Sr. likes to see Homer studying something, Homer enjoys seeing his father opening up to him about any subject—it doesn’t matter which one. Homer doesn’t particularly care for the mines of Coalwood themselves, but he likes listening to Homer Sr. talk about them—simply because Homer Sr. does care about the mines.
Homer Sr. asks Homer, point blank, if he’s interested in being a mining engineer, hinting that he’ll pay Homer’s way through school if the answer is yes. Homer has no choice but to tell the truth: he wants to be an engineer for von Braun instead. Homer Sr. is visibly disappointed, and he adds that Mr. Bykovski would be disappointed too. When Homer asks his father what he means, Homer Sr. explains that von Braun worked for the Nazis, and so presumably despises the Jews.
Here, Homer tells his father, point-blank, what he wants out of life, and Homer Sr. isn’t the least bit supportive (even though most fathers would presumably be thrilled to hear that their sons aspired to work for NASA!). Hickam also introduces a new complication here: von Braun isn’t the saint Homer thought he was. During the Third Reich in Germany, von Braun went on record saying that he despised the Jews, and his scientific work undoubtedly helped Hitler greatly. At the same time, he also worked alongside scientists whom he knew to be Jewish, and concealed their Judaism from the authorities—probably saving their lives. Either way, this revelation is an important reminder that science doesn’t exist in a vacuum—it is nearly always put to use for political purposes, some of them deeply immoral.
Homer and his father climb back to the surface. There, Homer is surprised to find his mother, wearing her church clothes. When Elsie sees Homer covered in coal dust, she bursts into tears. Homer Sr. tries to comfort Elsie, telling her that Homer is thinking of becoming a mining engineer. Elsie replies that Homer will only do so “over her dead body.” She says that mine is already killing Homer Sr.—she points to his chest—and that it won’t kill her children too.
In many ways, Elsie is saying all the things that Homer isn’t brave enough to say: he knows that the mines are slowly killing Homer Sr., and he knows that he would hate his life if he ended up in the mines. Elsie is a brave woman, who tells Homer Sr. exactly what she’s thinking, and refuses to “play along” with his devotion to the mine.