Elsie has just discovered Homer exploring the mine with his father. Back at their house, she furiously tells Homer that he’s a liar. To punish him, she orders him to cook dinner: kidneys and beans. She also threatens to shoot Homer if he ever goes down into the mine again.
Elsie’s threats are so hyperbolic that they’re almost funny, especially as we know how directly they contradict her husband’s wishes.
Homer notes that things are very tense in his house. Jim is still depressed about not being able to play football, and Homer Sr. and Elsie are constantly fighting. Homer decides to devote himself to rocket science again. Nevertheless, he can’t shake the comment Homer Sr. made about von Braun, Mr. Bykovski, and the Jews.
Everyone in the Hickam family is unhappy to some degree at this point. Mr. Bykovski’s support of Homer’s project seems even more selfless now that we realize he is Jewish, and is still helping Homer follow in the footsteps of a former Nazi.
Homer goes to visit Mr. Bykovski at his home, but finds that he’s at work. Instead, he talks to Mrs. Mary Bykovski. After a short time, Mr. Bykovski comes home, and he greets Homer cheerfully. Homer reluctantly brings up why he’s come, and asks about von Braun and the Jews. Mr. Bykovski takes his time responding to this, choosing his words carefully. Finally he explains that von Braun helped “monsters” like Hitler, and has never been punished for his complicity. Mrs. Bykovski offers a simpler explanation for Homer Sr.’s accusation—he’s jealous of von Braun’s success. Mr. Bykovski yells at his wife for daring to suggest this, and quickly changes the subject. He asks Homer how the rockets are coming, and Homer eagerly replies that the next one will reach 1000 feet. When Homer mentions the problem with the rocket nozzles, Bykovski sends Homer to Leon Ferro.
This section is the last time in Rocket Boys that Hickam brings up von Braun’s complicity in Nazi war crimes. Perhaps there’s nothing more to say about it: Homer grew up idolizing the man, and later learned that his idol was responsible for countless deaths, but could never entirely give up his devotion. In essence, Homer is posing a profound moral dilemma here: it is morally defensible to admire one aspect of a man’s career while also recognizing that the man did some immoral (or even evil) things? While he never says so explicitly, Hickam implies that for him, the answer to this question is yes. As we’ll see, Homer never stops admiring von Braun.
The week after Homer’s visit, Quentin and Homer visit Mr. Ferro at the machine shop. After listening to Homer’s explanation of the nozzle problem, Ferro recommends a steel-tubed rocket, and a thicker, sturdier nozzle with a higher melting point. Homer tries to draw a diagram of what he wants: a rocket shaft with a wide nozzle at the bottom. Ferro nods, but insists that Homer will need to draw more technical blueprints if he wants Ferro’s help. Homer agrees to draw the proper diagrams. Ferro also asks Homer to provide him with gravel for his mudhole, as a method of payment.
With every step forward that Homer makes with his rockets, he’s forced to solve another problem. While this can occasionally be frustrating to him, he often finds it exhilarating. Here, Homer goes through another extended trade to obtain the materials he needs to build a more successful rocket.
Homer goes to his father and asks for help obtaining gravel. Homer Sr. says that this is impossible. He also inspects Homer’s rocket drawings, and helps him to make them more professional. Homer insists that he still wants to work for von Braun in Cape Canaveral—Homer Sr. replies, “we’ll see,” but seems pleasantly amused by his son’s enthusiasm.
Homer returns to Mr. Ferro’s shop, where Mr. Ferro asks for lumber for his front porch in return for help designing Homer’s new rockets. Homer, not knowing how to obtain lumber, goes to the tipple shop, which is headed by Willy Brightwell, and asks for steel tubing for designing rockets. Brightwell refers Homer to Homer Sr., who again refuses to help Homer. Nevertheless, Homer finds steel tubing on the back porch of his house only a few days later. He’s puzzled—it seems at if Homer Sr. is secretly helping him.
Once again, it seems that Homer Sr. is secretly helping his son. It’s not clear why it would be necessary for Homer Sr. to do this while also pretending to oppose Homer’s goals, but it might just be that Homer Sr. is a stubborn man, and can’t admit that he was wrong at first about Homer’s rocketry. As a result, Homer Sr. has to leave materials and books around the house, never vocally admitting his mistake.
Homer takes his steel tubing to Mr. Ferro’s shop. Ferro agrees to use the tubing to building the latest rocket, Auk XIV. When Quentin sees the final product, he insists that it is too heavy, and that the nozzle’s mouth is too narrow—the rocket needs to be longer. A machinist at the store, Mr. Caton, agrees to make these modifications. The BCMA pours rock candy into their new rocket, confident that it will be a success.
Quentin continues to be an insightful critic of the BCMA’s rockets. He’s never entirely satisfied with what he’s given, and this is one of his greatest assets as a scientist.
The next weekend, the BCMA has set up another rocket launch. In attendance is Mr. Dubonnet. He asks Homer about the “rounds” he’s making, just to build rockets, and enthusiastically encourages him to keep at it. The rocket launch commences, and Auk XIV goes far higher than any rocket the BCMA has launched previously. It takes nearly an hour to recover the rocket when it falls to Earth—here, Billy proves himself useful, since he’s a fast runner. Quentin calculates that Auk XIV has reached a height of 3,000 feet.
With each rocket launch, the BCMA achieves a little more success. Here, Mr. Dubonnet is in attendance, and Homer Sr. is not. This reminds us that there’s still a big distance between Homer Sr. and Homer, even if they’re making some progress. Quentin continues to use mathematics by calculating the height of the rocket—his intelligence gives him a kind of authority over his fellow BCMA members.
A week later, Mr. Ferro calls Homer to his shop, where he shows Homer a new rocket he’s built on his own for the BCMA. The rocket is longer, as Quentin has specified, and the nozzle is fastened with screws instead of welding, meaning that it’ll be more secure. When the BCMA launches this rocket, it only reaches a height of about 1,500 feet. Quentin suggests that the BCMA has reached the limits of rock candy, and needs to find a better fuel source. He proposes that they join the year’s science fair, but Homer shakes his head—the group still isn’t ready.
Here, Quentin and Homer switch roles for the first time in the memoir. Thus Quentin wants to push ahead and enter the science fair, while Homer, for once, is cautious and conservative. Homer might just want everything to be perfect for his big moment—or perhaps he’s still a little shy about being perceived as nerdy and geeky, concerns that clearly don’t affect Quentin at all.
In late November, Homer asks Dorothy to the Christmas formal. Dorothy sadly shakes her head—she’s already agreed to go with the boy she went out with over the summer, a college student. Homer is surprised to hear this, since Dorothy has previously told him that this boy was unkind to her. Dorothy explains that she agreed to go with him before she knew “what kind of boy he was.” Homer finds himself feeling sorry for Dorothy. Shortly after the dance, from which he’s stayed home, Homer asks Roy Lee if it looked like Dorothy was having a good time with her date. Roy Lee sadly replies, “She was all over that guy.”
As Homer grows up, he doesn’t simply get better at math and science—his scientific education parallels his moral education. Here, Homer shows signs of being a more compassionate and open-minded person than before: he feels sorry for Dorothy, recognizing that Dorothy (and many of the other girls at his high school) have to deal with unkind boyfriends and gender double standards.
It is Christmas, 1958. Elsie gives Homer a present: an autographed photograph of his hero, Dr. von Braun. In his brief note, von Braun congratulates Homer for his success with rockets, encourages him to continue, and suggests that one day, he might find a job working for NASA. Elsie explains that she wrote von Braun and he responded. Homer is overjoyed with his gift. He shows it to his friends, who treat it like a holy relic.
Here, there’s no mention of von Braun’s complicity in Nazi war crimes—Hickam has clearly moved on from the issue. While Hickam’s methods of dealing with this subject may seem lackluster and incomplete, it’s important to keep in mind that this is a memoir, not really a work of fiction, and Hickam really did idolize von Braun growing up.