Rocket Boys

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The Cold War and the Space Race 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.
The Cold War and the Space Race Theme Icon

Rocket Boys takes place in the late 1950s and early 1960s, at the height of the Cold War—so to understand Rocket Boys, it’s crucial to understand the Cold War and its ramifications for American society.

Following World War II, the United States—a capitalist, democratic state—and the Soviet Union, or U.S.S.R.—a Communist state—became the two global superpowers. While the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. never directly fought with one another, they came close on many occasions—hence the term “Cold War.” One of the most famous of these occasions was the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, during which the U.S.S.R. shipped nuclear missiles to Cuba and aimed them at the United States. For nearly two weeks, the United States “stood its ground” against the Soviet Union, threatening to fire nuclear weapons on its territories if the Soviet Union persisted in keeping nuclear weapons in Cuba. Ultimately, both sides agreed to remove some of their weapons.

Science, mathematics, and technology were of the utmost important during the Cold War, particularly in the Space Race, a decade-long competition between Russia and America to build superior rockets and satellites, and send astronauts on increasingly challenging missions. The Space Race began in 1957, when the Soviet Union’s launched Sputnik—a small satellite that was the first to enter into orbit of the Earth, a technological achievement that implicitly proclaimed the Soviet Union’s scientific superiority to the United States. In response, the United States began building satellites and rockets of its own. The effects of these efforts trickled down even into American high schools, as the federal government began aggressively funding math and science classes, assigning more tests, and setting higher standards. Science and math were no longer seen as “nerdy,” esoteric activities—they were instead seen as patriotic duties, vital to the Cold War effort.

The influence of the Cold War and the Space Race on American society is apparent on every page of Rocket Boys. At the beginning of the book, prior to the launch of Sputnik, Homer and his friends are widely perceived as weak, effeminate, and more or less useless. Gradually, however, Homer and his friends gain respect by building impressive, efficient rockets, because rockets have become “cool”—especially as the American government spends millions of dollars on rockets in Cape Canaveral, offers generous engineering scholarships, and generally encourages young Americans to embrace physics and chemistry. One illustration of this comes towards the end of the novel, when an obnoxious classmate of Homer’s, Calvin, chases after Homer, demanding to talk to him. At first, Homer thinks that Calvin is trying to beat him up, but then he realizes the truth: Calvin wants Homer to help him get a job working with rockets in Cape Canaveral.

The symbolism is clear: rockets, science, and math were “sissy” activities before Sputnik—now, they’re a respectable career path, a way for young people to escape their dull lives in Coalwood. In the Cold War era, America changed its mind about what was valuable and what was a waste of time, and Homer and his friends are the beneficiaries of this change.

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The Cold War and the Space Race ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of The Cold War and the Space Race appears in each chapter of Rocket Boys. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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The Cold War and the Space Race Quotes in Rocket Boys

Below you will find the important quotes in Rocket Boys related to the theme of The Cold War and the Space Race.
Chapter 2 Quotes

“As I’m sure you know by now,” Mr. Turner said in his deliberate manner, “the Russians have launched a satellite into space. There have been many calls for the United states to do something in response. The Big Creek Student Council today has responded to, and I quote, the ‘threat of Sputnik’ by passing a resolution—I have it in my hand now—that dedicates the remainder of the school year to academic excellence. I approve the council’s resolution.”

Related Characters: Mr. R.L. Turner (speaker)
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

Rocket Boys is set against the backdrop of the Cold War, the long, semi-militaristic confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union that lasted from 1947 to 1991. Over the course of nearly half a century, the two dominant superpowers of the world, America and Russia, competed with one another for economic and political control of the world. The competition took many forms; the one most relevant to Rocket Boys is the Space Race. During the Space Race, inaugurated by the Soviets' launch of the satellite Sputnik into space, the two countries competed to produce the most powerful rockets and vehicles for space exploration. It was believed by both sides that success in space exploration was a way to assert superiority over one's political rivals.

As the quotation shows, one major consequence of the Space Race was a renewed focus on math and science in American schools. Following the launch of Sputnik (the satellite mentioned in the quote), national educational reform ensured that students would spend more time studying math and science, the two subjects deemed most relevant to building rockets and satellites that could compete with Russia's. Studying hard during the Space Race—not to mention building rockets--was considered an important, even patriotic mission, as every science book supposedly brought the U.S. closer to besting Russia.


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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.

Related Characters: Homer Hickam Jr. (speaker), Wernher von Braun
Page Number: 33
Explanation and Analysis:

Inspired by the launch of Sputnik, Homer Jr. wants to build rockets that can soar high into space, eclipsing Sputnik. But Homer's ambitions go much deeper than the desire to design impressive rockets. Suddenly, Homer sees a new path for himself in life—a path that will take him out of the town of Coalwood to engineer rockets for Dr. Werner von Braun, the most famous rocket scientist in the world. (In real life, von Braun was a former Nazi scientist who, due to his vast intelligence and talent, was recruited by the United States to build American weapons.)

Homer Jr. has always had vague ambitions to explore the world and get out of Coalwood. But it's not until the beginning of the Space Race that he finds a suitable plan to focus his ambitions. Rockets represent a way for Homer to escape a life spent mining coal in West Virginia: he thinks that if he builds impressive rockets he'll be able to escape his childhood home forever.

Chapter 10 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Homer Hickam Jr. (speaker), Jim Hickam
Page Number: 139
Explanation and Analysis:

In his final year of high school, Jim Hickam is dismayed to learn that football has been cancelled in West Virginia schools. Football—a staple of community life in Coalwood—has been cancelled because of the national shifts in the school system. Because of the Space Race, schools have decided to focus their attention on math and science, and suddenly football is seen as a distraction from the subjects that "really matter." In this quotation, we see the results of the changes in the school system: Jim and his football buddies are understandably angry and upset about not having an outlet for their talents and ambitions. The quote also foreshadows the way that Homer Jr. and his friends will become the new heroes of the school: their rocket launches will become a community "event," filling the vacuum created by the banning of football games.

Chapter 12 Quotes

“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.”

Related Characters: Homer Hickam Jr. (speaker), Homer Hickam Sr. (speaker), Wernher von Braun
Page Number: 185
Explanation and Analysis:

In this confrontation between Homer Sr. and Homer Jr., a lot is revealed about both characters. Homer Jr. makes it very clear that he has lofty ambitions of working for NASA, under the leadership of Werner von Braun. Indeed, von Braun is something of an alternate "father figure" for Homer Jr.—a role model. Homer Jr.'s love for von Braun suggests that he sees something insufficient in his father's personality and career choice: he wants to be something more than a mining engineer, and for this reason he looks beyond Coalwood for his heroes.

Homer Sr.'s behavior in this scene is equally revealing. He's an engineer, meaning that he can't entirely dislike what his son is doing with rockets. Homer Jr.'s rocket launches are a tribute to his father's own talents as an engineer (one could say that engineering, not mining, is in his blood). So it's not that Homer Sr. doesn't want his son to become a NASA engineer; instead, he just doesn't think this is a realistic dream. Homer Sr. wants his son to have a good, steady job that will enable him to raise a family. It's for this reason that he wants his son to abandon rocket science for the time being and focus on becoming a mining employee.

Chapter 24 Quotes

Kennedy seemed to be energized by the response. “If I’m elected president,” he said, “I think maybe we will go to the moon.”

Related Characters: Homer Hickam Jr. (speaker), John F. Kennedy (speaker)
Page Number: 336
Explanation and Analysis:

Homer Jr. goes into a nearby town to buy a suit for the science fair, and while he's there, he witnesses John F. Kennedy, a presidential candidate, making a speech. Homer asks Kennedy if man will use rockets to go to the moon, and Kennedy replies that perhaps America will go to the moon. (In real life, Kennedy's emphasis on space exploration led to the United States sending a team of astronauts to the moon in 1969).

The scene suggests that Homer and Kennedy are somehow kindred spirits—young, curious, idealistic men inspired to use science and technology to explore the world. The scene also implies that the Space Race was about much more than a militaristic competition with the Soviet Union (even if that's how the Space Race began). Homer's question for Kennedy betrays his optimism and curiosity; these qualities, as much as a desire to compete with Russia, brought America to the moon in 1969.