Rocket Boys

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Hard Work, Scarcity, Science, and Innovation Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
The Cold War and the Space Race Theme Icon
The Individual vs. the Group Theme Icon
Dreams, Ambition, and Acceptance Theme Icon
Parents and Children Theme Icon
Hard Work, Scarcity, Science, and Innovation Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Rocket Boys, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Hard Work, Scarcity, Science, and Innovation Theme Icon

A considerable chunk of Rocket Boys consists of Hickam’s descriptions of how, as a teenager, he went about finding the raw materials he needed to build sophisticated rockets. To get the tin needed to weld a rocket casing, for instance, Homer has to negotiate with Reverend “Little” Richard, who has purchased extra tin for repairing his roof. To get it, Homer has to provide the Reverend with shingles for his roof—and Homer has to get these from Emmet Jones, in exchange for a shipment of soil. The entire process is frustrating, and often hilariously painstaking. At many points in Rocket Boys, Homer notes that the students in Welch, a wealthier area of West Virginia, wouldn’t have so much difficulty designing a rocket—with their extra money, they could simply buy the necessary materials.

Homer and his friends face considerable disadvantages as residents of a small, impoverished mining town. They have to scrimp and save for every piece of metal they find, and whenever they find what they’re looking for, it seems like a miracle. Yet Hickam shows how the scarcity of resources in Coalwood actually makes Homer and his friends better scientists, more dedicated innovators, and, ultimately, more successful people. At many points during their experiments, Homer and his friends are tempted to add multiple “features” to a rocket at once—shorter fins, screws on the nozzle, a rounder cone, etc. Quentin, the most bookish and careful-minded “Rocket boy,” cautions against this reckless approach, however, because it’s not scientific—the only way to know which features work and which don’t work, he argues, is to make one change at a time. Homer eventually comes to realize that Quentin is right, and they have to get the most “mileage” from their scrap iron, saltpeter, wood, etc. This involves isolating and testing each resource, very slowly.

The rocket boys’ painstaking approach ultimately results in the best rocket imaginable. An agonizingly slow pace forces them to understand the nuances of their materials, and gives them the time to develop some of their most important innovations, such as a curved nozzle and alcohol-cured rocket fuel. A wealthier team of experimenters, by contrast, might be tempted to buy all the necessary materials at once, build a decent rocket, and then never improve it. Indeed, this is exactly the fate of the rockets built by Homer’s rivals, the wealthy students at Welch High School.

As Homer prepares for the science fair, he faces the dismissiveness of teachers and students who assume that, because he’s from a poor town, he’ll never have the resources to win a competition, but Hickam takes great pains to correct this misconception. In the end, Hickam passes on an important message about the value of hard work and a slow pace: while these things may be frustrating, they’re the cornerstones of good science.

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Hard Work, Scarcity, Science, and Innovation ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Hard Work, Scarcity, Science, and Innovation appears in each chapter of Rocket Boys. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Hard Work, Scarcity, Science, and Innovation Quotes in Rocket Boys

Below you will find the important quotes in Rocket Boys related to the theme of Hard Work, Scarcity, Science, and Innovation.
Chapter 5 Quotes

The first rocket emitted a boil of nasty, stinking, yellowish smoke and then fell over, the glue on its fins melted. “Wonderful,” Roy Lee muttered, holding his nose. Quentin silently wrote the result down on a scrap of notebook paper. Body of knowledge.

Related Characters: Homer Hickam Jr. (speaker), Roy Lee (speaker), Quentin
Related Symbols: Rockets
Page Number: 72
Explanation and Analysis:

This quotation is important because it shows us how much failure and bitterness Homer Jr. has to deal with before he attains any real success with rocket science. Many of Homer's early rockets don't launch at all—they just burn up on the launch pad, or explode, or worse.

In the quote, Hickam shows us two possible reactions to the rocket's failure: Roy Lee's and Quentin's. Roy Lee, an ambitious but somewhat impatient boy, is irritated by the failure of the rocket. Quentin, on the other hand, doesn't think of the rocket as a failure at all. An important part of the scientific method, he understands, is recognizing what not to do. Therefore, a rocket that burns up on the launchpad communicates some valuable lessons to the Rocket Boys. Quentin's patience and wisdom about the way science works is invaluable to Homer and his team as they proceed with their work.


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Chapter 8 Quotes

“Love to help ya, I really would,” he said, “but I don’t have enough for my roof as it is.”
I looked up. “But your roof is shingled.”
He nodded “If I had shingles, I’d use ‘em. But I don’t. I’ve got tin.”
“Emmett Jones has a bunch of shingles stacked up next to his coal box,” O’Dell said. “almost the same color.”

Related Characters: Homer Hickam Jr. (speaker), Reverend “Little” Richard (speaker), Emmett Jones
Related Symbols: Rockets
Page Number: 116
Explanation and Analysis:

In this scene, Homer and the other BCMA members get an impromptu lesson in engineering. They're trying to find materials to design rockets and a rocket launching pad, but find it difficult to track down the necessary metal and shingles. Here, the Reverend Richard gives the boys some advice in obtaining resources, referring them to someone (Emmett) who has what the boys need.

During their days as engineers, the Rocket Boys are often forced to spend large hours tracking down the materials they need to build rockets. Their mission to track down shingles and tin might seem like a waste of time, considering that many other students in the country wouldn't have to go to such an effort—their parents would have the money to just buy them what they needed. But surprisingly, having to track down resources doesn't necessarily disadvantage the BCMA: on the contrary, it makes them better workers and better scientists. Where wealthier students would buy tin and shingles without batting an eye, the BCMA are forced to think critically and practically about what materials would make for the best rockets, as their decisions about design and material need to be well thought-out in a way that their wealthier rivals' decisions don't. Furthermore, tracking down materials trains the boys to be gifted problem-solvers. When launching rockets, they apply the same resourcefulness they've acquired while tracking down what they need.

Chapter 12 Quotes

Machining and materials for gravel. Gravel, like all things in Coalwood, could be supplied by my father. After I completed my engineering drawing of the nozzle, there was nothing to do but to go up to the mine. Dad looked up from his desk when I entered his office. “I heard you’ve been talking to Ike Bykovski,” he said. “And now you’re visiting Leon Ferro. You get around, don’t you?”

Related Characters: Homer Hickam Jr. (speaker), Homer Hickam Sr. (speaker), Mr. Isaac Bykovski , Mr. Leon Ferro
Page Number: 184
Explanation and Analysis:

Homer Jr. is under strict instructions from his father, Homer Sr., not to build any more rockets. In part, Homer Sr. doesn't want his son building rockets because he thinks they're a danger to the mine: indeed, Homer's first rocket blows up, nearly hurting bystanders. Furthermore, Homer Sr. doesn't want Homer Jr. asking anyone in town—Ike and Leon included—about rocket design. In this quotation, Homer Sr. calls out his son for disobeying him on more than one occasion.

Homer Sr.'s gruffness in this scene might suggest that he doesn't want his son building rockets—in other words, just reiterating what he told his son earlier. But the very fact that Homer Sr. knows so much about Homer Jr.'s actions may suggest that he's keeping on eye on Homer Jr. for reasons other than criticizing or punishing him. As the book goes on, Hickam leads us to believe that Homer Sr. is grudgingly impressed with his son's intelligence and determination. So as intimidating as Homer Sr. might seem to be in this scene, there's also faint suggestion that he's secretly impressed with and supportive of his son.

Chapter 13 Quotes

I suddenly felt proud of [my father], more than for just his long-ago act of heroism, but because of what he had once been back in Gary and all that he had become because of his hard work.

Related Characters: Homer Hickam Jr. (speaker), Homer Hickam Sr.
Page Number: 210
Explanation and Analysis:

Homer discovers that his father is a hero: years ago, Homer Sr. found a baby in a burning building, and he risked his own life to carry the baby to safety. Years later, Homer meets that "baby," now a grown woman named Geneva Eggers, and learns about his father's bravery.

In spite of the anger he sometimes feels toward his father—mostly when his father forbids him from pursuing his passion of building rockets—Homer also develops a deep respect for the way his father has lived his life. It is important to note that it's not Homer Sr.'s bravery that really impresses Homer. Rather, Homer is more impressed with Homer Sr.'s hard work and perseverance while working for the mine in Coalwood. Homer's respect for his father's hard work suggests that it "takes one to know one"; in other words, Homer respects his father because Homer himself has been working very hard on his rockets.

Chapter 17 Quotes

I told him about my conversation with the machinist. “I think he’s right,”: I said. “It’ll take us forever your way.”
“And when this rocket blows up and you don’t have a clue what caused it?” Quentin asked, his face pinched. “What will you have learned then?”

Related Characters: Homer Hickam Jr. (speaker), Quentin (speaker)
Related Symbols: Rockets
Page Number: 230
Explanation and Analysis:

This excerpt shows us one of the most important clashes between Quentin and Homer. The quotation is also important because it underscores the differences between Quentin and Homer's ways of conducting scientific research. After the BCMA proposes a number of major changes to rocket design, Homer wants to add all 5 or 6 changes modifications to the group's rockets at the same time. Quentin, however, believes that the changes should be added one at a time; this will allow the group to identify the results of each change, establishing a more scientific relationship between causes and effects.

The quotation shows that Homer may be a little too enthusiastic about rocket designing: in his haste to build a good rocket, he takes short cuts and neglects the important scientific research needed to maximize results. It's also the case that Quentin is a little too cautious and slow-paced: in his love of the scientific method, he's ignoring the fact that the BCMA only has a finite amount of time before the upcoming science fair.

While Quentin turns out to be right about the need for a careful, slow-paced approach to rocket design, the more important point here is that Homer and Quentin need each other; in other words, they balance each other out. Only as a group can the BCMA succeed—if it were just Quentin or just Homer, the rockets would never win any prizes.

Chapter 22 Quotes

“You had the calculus class, Quentin. You work them.”
“No,” he said adamantly. “Miss Riley gave you the book. You know calculus as well as I do. Quit stalling!”

Related Characters: Homer Hickam Jr. (speaker), Quentin (speaker), Miss Riley
Page Number: 292
Explanation and Analysis:

One of the final steps in Homer's training as a scientist is his mastery of calculus. Because he's not admitted into calculus class in school, he's forced to study the subject on his own time. While many people help Homer learn mathematics, his most important "tutor" is actually Quentin.  Quentin teaches Homer the ins and outs of calculus, but even more importantly, he encourages Homer to overcome his "mental block" on the subject. As Quentin says here, Homer is just as good at math as Quentin himself is; the difference is that Quentin knows he's good at math, while Homer is so used to thinking of himself as a second-rate student that he finds it hard to work hard at calculus.