Ever since witnessing Mr. Bykovski’s death, Homer becomes sullen and lonely. He talks to his parents as little as possible. He wonders if he’s finally become a “good” West Virginian—stoic, stolid, and silent. Yet the fact that he can’t feel anything—no pain—terrifies Homer. He thinks of Jesus Christ, enduring pain for the good of the human race, and hates himself for feeling no pain of his own.
Hickam paints Homer’s moral dilemma in explicitly Christian terms. This is telling in and of itself: Homer has seemingly embraced Christianity in the past year, or at least become less skeptical and apathetic. The implication of Homer’s self-criticism is that pain is necessary to heal—one has to experience a strong catharsis in order to move on.
One day, Mr. Ferro asks Homer if he’ll be launching a new rocket soon, and Homer replies that he’s not making any more rockets. Homer decides to go to Jake, who’s usually good at cheering people up. At the Club House, Jake’s usual spot, Homer learns that Jake has gone to Ohio. Leaving the building, he runs into Mr. Dubonnet. Dubonnet tries to tell Homer that he can’t hold himself responsible for Mr. Bykovski’s death, but Homer ignores him.
Even if Homer is lost in misery and self-hatred, he’s intelligent enough to try to find ways to cheer himself up. It’s difficult to read about Homer’s interactions with Mr. Dubonnet, the kind, friendly man who had supported Homer in the earlier chapters. Homer not only rejects his own father, he also rejects the father figures who’ve helped him build rockets.
At school, Homer ignores his friends, gets poor grades, and avoids all contact with Valentine, who seems to be spending more and more time with Buck. He even ignores Dorothy when she tries to comfort him. As he walks away from her, Homer hears Jim say, “what a dope.” Miss Riley asks Homer why he’s not working on rockets anymore, and Homer replies that there’s no point. Miss Riley refuses to give up on Homer, however—she tells him that if he gives up rockets and continues reveling in his anger and guilt, he’ll regret it for the rest of his life.
That Homer cuts himself off from his friends and family is particularly distressing, since it had seemed for a while that he was getting closer to his father, closer to Quentin, and closer to his peers in Coalwood. Miss Riley again proves herself an intelligent, perceptive woman—it’s hard to imagine any of Homer’s other teachers (let alone Mr. Turner) delivering a similarly inspiring speech.
A few days later, Sherman calls Homer, and tells him to come to the Little Shore bus stop. When Homer demands an explanation, Sherman gives one to him—and though Homer doesn’t tell us what this explanation is, he rushes to the bus stop immediately. There, he finds Mrs. Bykovski: she’s leaving Coalwood to live with her relatives. Homer tells her that he’s responsible for Mr. Bykovski’s death—if it hadn’t been for him, Bykovski would never have been moved to the mines. Mrs. Bykovski smiles sadly and tells Homer the truth: Bykovski could have gone back to the machine shop at any time. She makes Homer promise never to forget Mr. Bykovski, and as she gets on her bus, Mrs. Bykovski yells that her husband would have loved nothing more than seeing Homer launch more rockets.
Mrs. Bykovski’s speech to Homer mitigates his guilt, insofar as she explains why, quite literally, Homer had nothing to do with Bykovski’s death: Bykovski chose to work in the mine. This is one of the more poignant scenes in the memoir, both because it emphasizes Mr. Bykovski’s selflessness, and it reminds us that in Coalwood, widows are forced to leave almost as soon as their husbands pass away. Because mining conditions are brutal, miners die all the time, leaving their widows behind to fend for themselves (earlier in the book, Homer described how the same thing happened to Tony’s parents).
Three weeks after Mr. Bykovski’s death, Homer organizes another rocket launching—he’s taken Mrs. Bykovski’s advice to heart. Nevertheless, he looks at his life in Coalwood coldly. Jim will be going to college on a sports scholarship. Homer himself plans on going to college through the army or the air force—Jim has often told him that he’d do well there. Homer doesn’t want to ask his parents for any money to pay for his education.
Homer is learning how to balance his hatred for Coalwood with his love for rockets. While it’s hard not to sympathize with Homer (the people of Coalwood have often been cruel to him), we also recognize that it’s unfair for Homer to hate Coalwood categorically: there are good, trustworthy people there, and many support him.
Mr. Caton delivers Homer the seamless steel tubing he’d asked for. Homer—who has made up with his friends, quickly and painlessly—works with Quentin to perfect the De Laval equations and build a satisfactory nozzle for the rocket.
Homer doesn’t linger on his making up with the other members of the BCMA—he doesn’t tell us what he said or what they said in reply. Homer’s friends love him sincerely, and theories of rocketry are unaffected by personal problems.
The narrative cuts ahead to the launch of Auk XXI. There are at least three dozen Coalwoodians present for the launch, including Mr. Dubonnet and Basil. Even before the rocket fires, Homer knows that it will be a huge success, and it is. Auk XXI attains a height of more than 4,000 feet, a record for the BCMA.
With each rocket launch, there are more people in attendance. This reminds us that Homer is wrong to hate Coalwood so blindly and categorically: he has a growing number of supporters and well-wishers, and shouldn’t turn his back on them.
Always thinking ahead, Homer tells the BCMA that next time the group must use a combination of zinc dust and sulfur. Roy Lee and Sherman are confused by this news. Homer angrily insists that he’s going for maximum altitude, so that “I—we” win the county science fair next year. Roy Lee accuses Homer of electing himself leader of the BCMA, and Homer lashes out at him, saying that he doesn’t care what anyone else thinks. Roy Lee punches Homer in the chest. He angrily explains that Homer must be a fool if he thinks the other members of the BCMA are worthless. Then he immediately apologizes for hitting Homer. Homer, ashamed of his own arrogance, says that he’s not sorry Roy Lee hit him.
Elsie had earlier accused Homer of selfishness, and now Homer recognizes the truth in this accusation. He’s wallowed in his own pain and misery, cut himself off from the rest of his town, and contemplated, to the exclusion of everything else, his journey to NASA. For the remainder of the novel, Homer will have to learn how to balance his personal ambitions with respect for the groups around him: his friends, his family, and the people of Coalwood in general. It is a sure sign of maturity, however, that he is willing to accept criticism about himself without lashing out in response.