The most obvious conflict in Rocket Boys is that between Homer’s dreams and the crushing reality he sees around him. Homer wants to build rockets, study engineering at college, and work for NASA, but this career path lies in stark contrast with what his father envisions for him: studying at college and then working in the coalmines of his hometown for the rest of his life. It’s also probable that most, if not all, of the miners in Homer’s community had lofty goals of their own when they were Homer’s age—goals which they’ve given up on, or failed to achieve.
Because Homer succeeds in his goal of winning a medal at the National Science Fair, it might seem that the message of Rocket Boys could be summed up as, “Believe in your dreams.” In actuality, Hickam’s message is sadder and much more realistic. While it’s true that Homer achieves many of his dreams, he also learns first-hand that achieving one’s dreams is difficult and often impossible. While most of the members of his rocket club, the BCMA, go on to study engineering in college, their path to higher education isn’t as easy as they’d assumed it would be, even after they win their science fair medal. None of the BCMA members, including Homer, get scholarship money, and Homer is only able to go to college for reasons totally outside of his control (his mother, Elsie, reveals that she’s secretly been saving money for years).
The BCMA’s success is further marred by the unlucky suffering experienced by a number of its loyal supporters. A friendly miner and BCMA collaborator, Mr. Bykovski, dies in a mining accident. Later, Homer’s dedicated teacher, Miss Riley, is diagnosed with cancer. Miss Riley’s diagnosis with cancer is particularly traumatic because she’s sent to the hospital almost immediately after the BCMA wins the National Science Medal. These tragedies offer a powerful reminder that even the greatest successes aren’t perfectly satisfying—there will always be some bad news to weigh down the good.
Homer Hickam Jr. got exactly what he wanted out of life: he excelled at engineering, and ended up working for NASA. Nevertheless, Hickam is intelligent enough to realize that not everyone can do as he did. Ultimately, he argues, people should believe in their dreams—but they should also accept that their success, or lack of success, is sometimes influenced by factors outside their control. Hickam ultimately seems to suggest that one must expect and accept some tragedy in one’s life, while continuing to believe in one’s dreams. The combination of ambition and acceptance is far more powerful than ambition alone—indeed, it’s this combination that allows Homer to succeed.
Dreams, Ambition, and Acceptance ThemeTracker
Dreams, Ambition, and Acceptance Quotes in Rocket Boys
For all the knowledge and pleasure they gave me, the books I read in childhood did not allow me to see myself past Coalwood. Almost all the grown-up Coalwood boys I knew had either joined the military services or gone to work in the mine. I had no idea what the future held in store for me.
The men crossed the tracks and I saw the glint of their lunch buckets in the tipple light, and I came slowly back to reality. They weren’t explorers on the moon, just Coalwood miners going to work. And I wasn’t on von Braun’s team. I was a boy in Coalwood, West Virginia. All of a sudden, that wasn’t good enough.
I didn’t know what to say. I just stared at her. She sighed. “To get out of here, you’ve got to show your dad you’re smarter than he thinks. I believe you can build a rocket. He doesn’t. I want you to show him I’m right and he’s wrong. Is that too much to ask?”
“You gonna build another [rocket]?” asked Tom Tickle, one of the single miners who lived in the Club House.
Tom was friendly. “Yes, sir, I am,” I said.
“Well, attaboy!” the step group chorused.
“Shee-it. All he can do is build a bomb,” Pooky said.
“Maybe one day we’ll have a trophy in here, Sonny, for our rockets.”
“Are you kidding?”
“Absolutely not. Every spring, science students present their projects for judging at the county science fair. If you win there, you go to the state and then the nationals. Big Creek’s never won anything, but I bet we could with our rockets.”
“You want to thank me.” He nodded toward the box. “Make these fly. Show your dad what you and I did together.”
My father had clearly, in no uncertain terms, told me to stop building rockets. The BCMA was now an outlaw organization. I don’t know why, but that felt good. I had the urge to hug Mr. Bykovski, but resisted it. Instead, I stood straight and tall, and said firmly, and what I hoped was manfully, “Yes, sir. You can count on me.”
“We’re making progress.” I put out my hand, palm down. “Come on, put your hand on mine, like the football team does.”
One by one, Sherman, O’Dell Roy Lee, and Quentin solemnly placed their hands one on top of the other, all on top of mine. “Rocket boys,” I said. “Rocket boys forever!”
Instead of swaggering heroically through the halls in their green and white letter jackets, Jim and the football boys trudged to class sullen and trigger-sensitive to insult.
“Mining’s in your blood, little man,” he shrugged. “I guess you’ll figure that out, sooner or later.”
“I still want to work for Dr. von Braun.”
He nodded. “We’ll see.”
“When you grow up, you’re going to find out there’s a lot of things you’re going to have to do whether you like it or not.”
“Sonny,” [Miss Riley] said, “a lot has happened to you, probably more than you know. But I’m telling you, if you stop working on your rockets now, you’ll regret it maybe for the rest of your life.”
Jake jammed his hands in his pockets, sighed, and looked up at the mountains. “I’m not a religious man, Sonny. You want parables and proverbs, go to church. But I believe there’s a plan for each of us—you, me, Freida too. It doesn’t help to get mad about it or want to whip up on God about it. It’s just the way it is. You’ve got to accept it.”
Yet I believe for those of us who keep it in our hearts, Coalwood still lives.