It’s January 31, 1958, and Wernher von Braun is launching the Explorer-1 satellite. The launch is a great success—a fact that invigorates Homer, but leaves Homer Sr. unimpressed. Homer’s friends come by, and Homer takes the opportunity to talk to Roy Lee about Homer Sr.’s lungs. (Roy Lee’s brother, Billy, is medically trained.) Roy Lee is unsure how to react to this information.
Hickam begins this chapter with a kind of recap of the previous chapters: we’re reminded that Homer Sr. is sick and unsupportive of Homer’s dreams, and Homer is still eager to build a rocket and emulate von Braun.
Homer tells his friends that he’s forming a rocket club, the Big Creek Missile Agency, or BCMA. To his surprise, his friends want to join the BCMA, even though Quentin is a part of it. Homer announces himself the president, and Quentin the scientist. Roy Lee covers transportation, O’Dell is treasurer, and Sherman handles publicity and sets up the rocket range.
While it had seemed that Roy Lee and his friends were too “cool” to volunteer to work alongside Quentin, the nerd, it now seems that they’re more interested in science, success, and space than they’d first appeared. The BCMA will become a very close-knit group.
Quentin and Homer go to the McDowell County Library in search of books about rockets, but they don’t find anything useful. At school, Quentin notices a display case, and mentions that one day they may have a trophy in honor of their rockets in that case. Homer explains that every year there’s a county science fair, and after that a state and national fair.
In this section, Hickam foreshadows Homer’s success later in the book—we can sense, even now, an upcoming quest to win a science fair medal. Quentin, like Elsie, seems forward-thinking, always contemplating the group’s next move.
As Quentin and Homer talk, Miss Riley, a teacher, and Mr. Turner, the principal notice them. When Quentin tells Mr. Turner about the BCMA, Turner tries to impress upon Quentin and Homer that their club must not cause any more explosions (he’s heard about the rose-garden fence). Miss Riley is more supportive, suggesting that it would be wonderful if the school focused on things other than football. Because she’s in charge of science fairs, Miss Riley asks Quentin and Homer to stop by her classroom.
One of Hickam’s projects in Rocket Boys is proving that West Virginia towns aren’t as anti-intellectual as they’re stereotyped to be. Coalwood isn’t monolithic, and figures like Miss Riley seem to embody the spirit of the decade: moving away from an emphasis on physical force and concentrating instead on science and math (although for the government, usually in the service of physical force).
As they walk away from Mr. Turner and Miss Riley, Homer and Quentin argue about the science fair. Homer is reluctant to join a stereotypically “nerdy” activity, but Quentin is more optimistic—he argues that winning this competition is the ideal way to “get on down” to Wernher von Braun. Homer points out that he and Quentin would be competing against Welch High School—a rigorous, academically excellent school.
Quentin appears to be the optimist of the group, while Homer is the harsh realist. Welch, a wealthy, pampered high school, becomes a new sort of antagonist. We’ve already seen the poverty in Coalwood, and how thoroughly it disadvantages Homer in his pursuit of rocketry. The knowledge that there’s another, wealthier town competing for the same things only reinforces how difficult it will be for Homer to succeed.
Homer leaves Quentin to go to his class. Inside, Emily Sue asks Homer about Dorothy. Homer notes that he thinks of Emily Sue as a “forever friend”—someone he can be totally open and honest with. Emily Sue informs Homer that Dorothy likes him, but isn’t romantically interested. Emily Sue explains that Homer is nice and likeable, but not attractive to girls. Jim, by contrast, is attractive and well-dressed, but he has no real friends. Homer is hurt by this news, and he tries to think of ways to make Dorothy love him.
Homer is lucky to be close friends with one of Dorothy’s close friends, as this allows him to get some inside information on her feelings. For the time being, Homer tries—and fails—to be satisfied with the news that he’s more likeable than his brother, Jim. Even if Emily Sue’s news is disappointing, it’s refreshing to hear that being a handsome football star isn’t everything.
For the next few weeks, Quentin and Homer research more rocket fuels. Quentin proposes using a combustible glue to make the fuel burn more evenly. Homer succeeds in getting combustible glue from the Big Store—to this day, he notes, he has no idea why the Store sold it. At the store, Junior brings up Cape Canaveral, the area where Wernher von Braun researches rockets. Junior, who is black, mentions that the beaches are segregated in Florida. Homer is surprised to hear this, even though he knows that blacks have their own separate schools in Coalwood.
Hickam freely acknowledges that for all his hard work and resourcefulness, much of his success depended on luck. There’s no reason why the Big Store should sell combustible glue, and if it hadn’t, it’s quite likely that Homer would have been halted in his tracks early one. Junior brings up another kind of luck as well here—Homer might be poor, but he still has the white privilege of not having to face segregation and systemic racism as another obstacle to success.
Back at home, Homer mixes the right proportions of saltpeter and charcoal with powdered glue, creating a thick, pasty substance. Quentin is impressed with this fuel. Together, he and Homer plan to weld a nozzle to the bottom of their rocket. Homer decides to approach Mr. Isaac Bykovski about this. He is the father of Esther, a former classmate of Homer’s who was diagnosed with cerebral palsy. Homer remembers Mr. Bykovski being friendly and likable.
Here we meet another potential ally for Homer and his rocket-building friends: Mr. Bykovski. As Hickam progresses with his story, it becomes clearer and clearer that Coalwood is, in fact, highly supportive of Homer’s attempts to build rockets, even if it’s also full of bullies and close-minded miners.
Homer goes to Mr. Bykovski’s house. There, he tells Bykovski that he wants help building a rocket by welding a washer to a metal tube. Bykovski suggests soldering instead of welding, and Homer agrees, though he has no idea what soldering is. Bykovski decides to teach Homer, and he shows him how to melt solder—soft, coiled metal—and shape it properly. Afterwards, he promises Homer he’ll finish the soldering work for the rocket tomorrow. The next night, Homer meets Mr. Bykovski again, and finds a soldered tube with a wooden cone at its head. Homer finds his rocket beautiful, and he decides to name it “Auk I,” after the extinct, flightless bird. He chooses this obscure name to prove that he’s intelligent, and that he is learning something from his research.
Although Homer gets little love and attention from Homer Sr. in this section of the book, he finds “father figures” elsewhere. Here, Mr. Bykovski teaches Homer lessons about rocket science in a friendly, unmistakably fatherly way. It’s also in this section that Homer coins the name “Auk.” Much like the nickname “Rocket Boys,” “Auk” is meant to be ironic—it’s a way of throwing insults back in the offending party’s face. The name “Auk” is also, as Homer admits, a rather pretentious attempt to prove that he’s getting smarter by building rockets.
Homer becomes annoyed with Quentin because Quentin has been unable to find the right books about rocket flight. O’Dell impatiently asks to launch the rocket, and the group agrees to do so, despite Quentin’s protests. They launch the rocket near the edges of the mine, and find that it lifts about six feet into the air and then falls to the earth. Quentin explains: the rocket was flying, but the soldering melted.
Quentin is calmer and more patient than his friends, and this is one of his greatest assets as a scientist. When the other boys want to launch the rockets as soon as possible, they impatience results in a total, meaningless failure. As Homer grows up, he learns to work as Quentin’s pace—the pace of a scientist.
The next day, Homer brings another tube to Mr. Bykovski, asking him to weld a washer to it. Bykovski obliges, saying that steel will be better than aluminum. Over the next three weeks, Homer makes three more rockets: Auk II, III and IV. Accompanied by his friends, Sherman lights the fuse for Auk II and the group watches the rocket’s progress. Auk II flies ten feet into the air, then turns and shoots toward a tree. Quentin points out that the rocket needs a better guidance system.
Hickam here begins to establish the “rhythm” of the rocket launches, and the rhythm of the book itself: Homer and his team build a rocket, relying on adults like Mr. Bykovski for help; Homer and his team launch the rocket; and Quentin makes critiques and writes down ways to improve the rockets next time.
In response to Quentin’s point, O’Dell insists that the group should launch Auk III and IV immediately. He lights the fuse on Auk IV, and watches as the rocket flies toward the mine, eventually hitting Homer Sr.’s office. Homer Sr. rushes out of his office toward Homer. He yells at Homer for continuing to research rockets, insisting that the rocket could have killed someone. He then notices that the rocket is made from company property—metal and casing. He accuses Homer—and the company worker who helped him—of being a thief.
Just as the BCMA seems to have “gotten of the ground,” Hickam brings us back to earth. Homer Sr. isn’t wrong to accuse Homer of stealing company property, but his reaction seems a little excessive—a reflection of his own irrational devotion to the mining company, not of his son’s misdeeds. It’s also concerning that Homer Sr. threatens to punish Mr. Bykovski as well as Homer.