On February 1, the Russians launch Luna I, the first man-made object ever to break away from the Earth’s gravitation pull. Shortly thereafter, Homer meets with Jake at the Club House to look through Jake’s telescope. While he’s at the Club House, Homer notices that Jake has a new girlfriend, a beautiful redhead. Homer spends the rest of the evening staring at the moon through the telescope. Though he’s hoped to catch a glimpse of Luna I, he sees nothing. Later, he learns that the object missed the moon by less than 4,000 miles.
The information about Luna I reminds us that, just as Homer has a long way to go before he achieves success with his rockets, NASA also has a long way to go before it successfully launches a lunar mission. Meanwhile, life goes on in Coalwood: Jake gets a new girlfriend, and Homer keeps longing for space.
Homer spends hours at a time reading his “rocket book,” and one afternoon, he and Quentin take turns poring over its dense chapters. Quentin points out that the book presumes detailed knowledge of other scientific and mathematical fields, such as thermodynamics and calculus. Homer is disheartened by this news. Nevertheless, he’s glad to find a chapter in Miss Riley’s book on “flow passages”—essentially the same thing as rocket nozzles. An engineer, Carl Gustav De Laval, has shown that a divergent passage to a converging nozzle (in other words, a small opening for gas) produces kinetic energy. This is a key discovery, Homer realizes: it means that the BCMA can build nozzles in such a way that they’ll produce enough kinetic energy to shoot their rockets miles into the sky—provided that they can master the mathematics behind the technology.
Homer and Quentin know that they have a tremendous amount of information to learn before they can master the science of propulsion, but they are also eager to get started. Hickam continues to mix details of rocket science into his memoir of teenaged and small town life.
The night after Homer’s insight, there is an earthquake in Coalwood. Homer is frightened that Homer Sr., who’s working in the mine, will be crushed to death, though he remembers his father explaining that the mine is specially designed to be resistant to earthquakes. The next day, Homer wakes up to find his father alive and well. Homer Sr. has gone into the mine to assist with his rescue team, risking his own life in the process. Elsie scolds Homer Sr. for doing so, reminding him that it’s his job to oversee the mine, not assist with rescues.
Homer Sr. never hesitates to go above and beyond the requirements of his job. Even when he’s only required to wait while the miners bail each other out of danger, he risks his life trying to save them. While this devotion is impressive and even heroic, it irritates and worries Elsie—understandably, she doesn’t want her husband to die, leaving her to take care of her family alone.
On a Saturday, Homer and his friends gather at the launchpad to launch Auk XVI. In the audience for the event is Valentine Carmina. Confidently, Valentine tells Homer that he should look past Dorothy to “other girls,” hinting that she’s interested in him. Homer is lost for words, and he goes to assist with the rocket launch.
It’s been fairly obvious to us for some time now that Valentine is interested in Homer, but only now does Homer realize it as well. He’s always thought of himself as having to be the one pursuing romance, and so is surprised to find himself being pursued.
Quentin, O’Dell, and Roy Lee have been busy installing telephones in the blockhouse—now, they can communicate with one another from the launchpad to the blockhouse. Homer gives a countdown over the telephone, and Sherman launches the Auk XVI. It shoots straight up—much straighter than any of its predecessors, and travels high into the sky. The next three rockets, Auks XVII to XIX, are equally impressive—they “steer” well, and fly very high. Quentin calculates that the shortest rocket—only 2 feet—reaches the highest altitude, about 3,000 feet. As the BCMA leaves the launchpad, they notice a group of girls waving their panties from a car.
Here, more than ever, it’s clear that the BCMA’s efforts at building rockets have translated into attention from the girls of Big Creek High School. At first, Homer and Roy Lee were afraid that their peers would shun them for being nerdy, but here, their fears seem utterly misplaced. Once again it seems like the football team and its “jocks” have been replaced—on both the high school social ladder and in the hearts of the townspeople—by the BCMA.
Homer and his friends return to Homer’s house, where they find Jim sourly watching TV. Jim insults them for wasting their time on rockets, and Quentin shoots back that Jim is only jealous of their success. The BCMA quickly retires to Homer’s room, joined only by Daisy Mae, the cat. They agree that learning calculus will be an important step in mastering their rocket designs.
The BCMA members are getting more confident as a result of their success. Here Quentin—seemingly the person least likely to engage in an argument—stands up to Jim, and wins. Perhaps the sight of women at the latest rocket launch has inspired Homer and his friends to stand up for themselves more.