In March 1959, Homer Sr. leaves Coalwood to attend a mining-engineering conference in Ohio. The entire week that he’s gone, Homer prays for him to have a safe trip home. Homer Sr. does, indeed, return safely.
Homer seems more comfortable praying and thinking about Christianity in general than he was at the beginning of the memoir.
A few days after Homer Sr. returns, he finds Homer studying calculus in his old math book. Homer Sr. accuses Homer of taking the book without asking permission first. Instead of responding to this accusation, Homer asks his father for help with a calculus problem. Homer Sr. starts to answer the question, but then cuts himself off—he wants to know why Homer is bothering to study calculus at all. In response, Homer begs his father to come watch his rocket launches at Cape Coalwood. He further accuses Homer Sr. of paying more attention to Jim than to him. Homer Sr. doesn’t respond directly to these accusations, but he does suggest that there’s still time for Homer to become a mining engineer. Homer replies that he has no interest in such a career. Homer Sr. looks disappointed and leaves Homer alone.
Homer Sr. wants Homer to be successful and have a stable income, and while there’s nothing wrong with wanting these things for one’s son, Homer Sr. is too quick to judge an engineering career in NASA simply because he doesn’t know anything about it. In general, Homer Sr. seems reluctant to try or support new things and new ideas—thus, he distrusts NASA, science, etc. Homer is so desperate for his father’s attention and love that he finally asks him, point-blank, to come to his rocket launch—and Homer Sr.’s tepid response is heartbreaking.
Mr. Ferro calls Homer, asking him how he’d like to position the nozzle on his latest rocket. Homer calls him back later, explaining that the nozzle must be built for lightness and efficiency. Mr. Ferro agrees, explaining that he’s already designed the nozzle in exactly this way. He enthusiastically asks Homer if he’ll launch more rockets over the weekend. When Homer replies that he will, he hears whoops and cheers over the phone.
Right after this crushing conversation with Homer Sr., Homer gets a pleasant reminder that he does have loyal supporters in Coalwood—many of them, in fact. Mr. Ferro and his friends at the machine store have grown so accustomed to helping Homer with his rockets that they now have a personal stake in Homer’s success.
Shortly after his phone call, Homer bikes over to Ferro’s store, where he finds a three-foot rocket waiting for him. Mr. Caton has designed the rocket with special fins attached to the tube. He’s also added a wooden cone to the top of the tube, and extra screws for the fins. Homer accepts the new rocket, though he’s worried that it’s become too heavy.
Homer is becoming more discerning with his rockets now. He doesn’t just accept Mr. Caton’s designs without reservation, as he did before. This suggests that Homer is learning to be more patient—and, in a sense, more scientific.
Homer shows the new rocket to Quentin. Quentin is impressed but worried by the additions Mr. Caton has made—he argues that the BCMA will only find the best rocket design if they make changes one at a time. He adds that Homer is clearly in a hurry, but he should be taking his time and proceeding in a “scientific” manner instead. Homer tries to cheer Quentin up by telling him that they need to hurry up in order to enter the science fair. A science fair medal would be an excellent achievement, Homer thinks privately—it would prove to his father that he hasn’t been wasting his time.
Quentin and Homer argue in this scene, illustrating a basic tension between their two approaches. While Homer has a tendency to rush ahead with his rockets, leading to sloppy work, Quentin has the opposite problem: he acts as if the BCMA has infinite time and resources. The best course of action probably lies somewhere between Quentin and Homer’s two approaches. In this situation, Homer tries to rush ahead with the launch for personal reasons.
Quentin asks Homer if he’s going to college. Homer isn’t sure how to reply—he admits that he might go to college, if he can convince his father. Quentin explains that he’ll have no way of paying for college unless he wins a science fair medal—the same is probably true of the other BCMA members, he adds. Even if the medal itself isn’t worth any money, it’s a surefire way to get the BCMA noticed: by scientists, scholarship providers, and engineers. Homer realizes that Quentin is absolutely right.
Once again, Quentin proves that he’s always thinking about the big picture. Homer thinks about his future at NASA, but he doesn’t always have much to say about how to become an engineer in the first place. Perhaps Quentin’s social awkwardness is his greatest asset: while Homer and his friends are overly focused on their day-to-day teenage lives, Quentin focuses on the practicalities of the future.
The narrative skips ahead to the next rocket launch. Auk XX launches normally, but before it’s gotten 500 feet in the air, it explodes. The BCMA tries to understand what made the rocket explode, but they can’t agree—it might have been the casement, the fins, the nozzle, etc. Quentin seems to have been right—because Mr. Caton made so many changes to the rocket, there’s no way for them to measure their progress. Suddenly, Mr. Caton—who’s attended the launch—rushes forward. He explains that he welded two halves of the rocket tube together—evidently, his welding wasn’t strong enough, since the pressure inside the rocket has caused a deep rent in the welded section of the tube. Homer calmly asks Mr. Caton to redo the welding, using a stronger, seamless weld. Homer’s still very angry with his father, but he thinks that he can use his anger to help him focus on success.
Homer is still angry and disappointed with his father for abandoning him in favor of Jim, his favorite child. Homer acts as though he’s content to be angry with Homer Sr., but it seems more likely that Homer merely wants his father’s love and support. His project to design rockets, then, is—on one level—an elaborate strategy of making Homer Sr. regret his actions. In any case, Homer is lucky to have other father figures to rely on in the meantime: Mr. Caton is only one of several. Homer grows more confident both in his technical knowledge and in expressing his wishes.