The school year begins in the fall, and the BCMA proceeds with its rocketry. As Homer works, he visits the Reverend Richard, who tells Homer that he had a dream in which Homer walked on the moon. Unfortunately, the BCMA’s next launch is a total failure: Auk XXII explodes on the launchpad, suggesting that the zinc fuel isn’t stable enough to be useful. Worse, when Homer returns to his house, Elsie tells him that the mining company is selling houses in Coalwood.
In this opening section of the chapter, we’re brought suddenly back to earth (as it were) when Elsie explains that the mining company is selling houses. Homer is often so focused on his own projects that he loses sight of the big picture—that is, the state of affairs in his town, and the precariousness of the mine.
Homer explains the status of Coalwood in 1959. Steel companies are experiencing deficits, meaning that they need to sell off houses, as well as sewage and water systems, and even the churches. It’s possible that the coalmine will be shut down next.
The mining company dominates life in Coalwood, so it makes a frustrating kind of sense that the mining company would be the entity to end life in Coalwood. The company has the power to repossess houses, churches, and utilities.
After a particularly difficult meeting with the union, Homer Sr. returns to his home, reporting that the union wants to know how to pay for workers’ houses. The company has promised to lend the workers money with no interest rate—a generous move, but still a major strain on the workers’ finances. Elsie insists that the coalmine itself will be shut down soon. Homer Sr. angrily denies this, arguing that the sense of community in Coalwood will make the workers loyal and productive, in turn making the mine itself financially productive. Shortly thereafter, Mr. Van Dyke is fired for complaining about the property sale, and the unions go on strike.
No one is safe in the world of mining: even superintendents like Homer Sr. and Mr. Van Dyke are ultimately expendable, and can be dismissed at any moment. Mr. Dubonnet had already pointed out this very fact to Homer Sr. in an early chapter, but Homer Sr. had refused to believe it. Just as he can’t believe in the reality of entropy, Homer Sr. can’t acknowledge that the mining company could destroy his career at the drop of a hat.
Meanwhile, the BCMA experiments with zinc-sulfur combinations. They realize that the mixture is too loose, and has too much air in it to be stable. Thus, they try to find a way to “bind” the zinc and sulfur together. Quentin decides to use a mixture of alcohol to keep the chemicals together, since alcohol is stable and evaporates quickly.
Quentin continues to think of novel solutions to the logistical problems of rocket building. Again Hickam jumps between the struggles of small town life and technical descriptions of rocket science.
The group goes to John Eye’s to find pure, 100% alcohol. John Eye is a local legend—the most popular moonshiner in the region. At John Eye’s house, they find a big room full of gamblers. There, Roy Lee takes the lead, asking John Eye for his purest brew. John Eye encourages Roy Lee to sample his product to make sure that it’s 200-proof. The group decides to taste the alcohol. Homer reluctantly takes a swig, which burns his insides. It’s enough to make him—and the other BCMA members—very drunk. Homer is sick for hours afterwards. When he goes home, carrying a big container of alcohol, Elsie scolds him for drinking. Nevertheless, he hears her laughing with Homer Sr. as he goes to bed, and the sound of their laughter cheers him up.
At the beginning of Rocket Boys, Homer and his friends had worried that working with rockets would cut them off from the rest of the high school, making them seem immature, nerdy, or otherwise unmanly. Here, it becomes clear that just the opposite is the case: the BCMA comes of age by studying rockets. Consider how many classic “coming of age” activities the boys participate in: camping, the losing of one’s virginity, and here, drinking alcohol. For Homer, all these things have been closely linked to the BCMA.
A new superintendent comes to Coalwood: Mr. Fuller. He’s totally charmless, and the town instantly dislikes him. He essentially dares Mr. Dubonnet to declare a strike. Mr. Dubonnet doesn’t do so, and the property sale proceeds. Reverend Richard manages to pay for his church, but Reverend Lanier loses his job—because he works for the company, he’s dismissed from his position. No one else wants to be a priest in Coalwood, so the Coalwood Community Church is closed for the first time in living memory.
The mining company is responsible for establishing all the “culture” of the town of Coalwood: its religion, its parks, and its schools. At the same time, it’s capable of snatching away this culture at any given time. Thus, when the company mandates it, Reverend Lanier has no choice but to step down from his position, and the religious life of the whole town is affected.
As these disturbing changes come to Coalwood, Homer continuers with his rocketry. He mixes moonshine, zinc, and sulfur, and gets a thick, clay-like substance. He dries the “clay” and lights up a small portion of it, happily noting that it’s extremely flammable, and thus makes for good fuel. One night, he and the BCMA are lighting up fuel near their house when Mr. Fuller yells at them to stop. Tag, who’s walking by, defends the “Rocket Boys,” and tells Fuller that he’ll get used to them in due time.
This an important moment, because it establishes that the BCMA has become an accepted part of Coalwood society. Only a few months previously, the BCMA had been regarded as a dangerous, “foreign” group, fit only for causing mischief. Now, the BCMA is as quintessentially Coalwoodian as the people themselves—and a part of the town community that doesn’t belong to the mining company.
The BCMA announces its next rocket launch: Auk XXII-A. More than 200 people show up for the launch. There, Auk XXII-A shoots up so high that no one can see it. Sherman uses Newtonian physics to calculate that the rocket attains a height of 5,776 feet—a BCMA record, and the first time they’ve broken the “mile barrier.” The boys are exhilarated with their success, and Basil publishes an article about their achievements that gushes with praise for their ingenuity.
The BCMA’s latest rocket launch is an even bigger success than its predecessors. The huge crowd is probably related to the closure of the Coalwood church: it’s as if the BCMA has come to replace the church (as it did football) as a cultural staple of Coalwood. In the absence of any other stable meeting place where the town can congregate, the people of Coalwood go to watch the rockets.
The BCMA’s next step is to perfect the nozzle equations necessary to make their rockets more efficient. Thus will require measuring the rocket’s thrust. In order to do so, the group borrows a “meat scale” (the kind that’s used to hang sides of beef from the ceiling) from a local butcher shop. At Cape Coalwood, they try to use the scale to measure their rockets’ thrust, but in the end the rocket is so hot that it melts the scale to pieces. The BCMA spends the next few weeks working at the butcher shop to pay off their debt.
It’s worthwhile to remember that the BCMA continues to cause some damage and mayhem, even as their rockets get more sophisticated. Science is not an exact science, and one consequence of this reality is that things get broken and ruined along the way to a successful invention. Elsie’s bathroom scale is far from the only casualty of the BCMA’s research.
The BCMA next tries to measure thrust using Elsie’s bathroom scale. They manage to attach the rocket to the spring in the scale, and measure the “weight” of the rocket’s movement in the split second before the rocket destroys the scale. O’Dell is able to obtain a new bathroom scale for Elsie, and the group is satisfied—they’ve learned the thrust of their rocket.
The BCMA is investigating the thrust of their rocket—a complicated Newtonian concept that they wouldn’t have been able to explain even a few months ago. Once again they must use their ingenuity and makeshift materials to continue their research.
The BCMA prepares for its final countersunk nozzle-rocket, Auk XXII-D. Afterwards, Homer and Quentin will experiment with different nozzle shapes, using the proper equations from their guidebook. For Auk XXII-D, Homer designs especially small, narrow fins to prevent “wobbling.”
Homer begins to take a more active role in the design of the rockets. Previously, Quentin had dominated most of the scientific aspects of rocket building—Homer’s tasks were more administrative (organizing where to launch) or material (finding scrap iron, for example).
The BCMA launches their Auk rocket. It flies straight up, but Homer’s small fins turn out to be a mistake—the rocket swerves and heads toward Frog Level. Homer is terrified that his rocket will kill someone, as is Roy Lee. As it turns out, Auk XXII-D lands in an abandoned field, hurting no one, and the townspeople are more amused than angry. The only exception is Mr. Fuller, who considers the rockets a “menace.” The townspeople angrily defend the “Rocket Boys,” saying that Fuller can take away their homes, their water, and their power, but not their rockets. Nevertheless, Mr. Fuller promises to report Homer to Homer Sr.
Homer’s earlier attempts to design rockets are failures, but also steps toward success. It’s important that Homer tries only one change at a time—now he knows not to use small fins again. It’s also refreshing to hear the townspeople defending their Rocket Boys whole-heartedly. The speech about how the mining company can take Coalwood’s power but not its Rocket Boys reminds us that the BCMA has become part of Coalwood’s unique culture—impossible for the company to repossess.
Shortly after the launching of Auk XXII-D, Homer Sr. calls Homer to his office. He tells Homer they’re going for a ride. Homer Sr. drives Homer out to Cape Coalwood. There, Homer is horrified to see that Mr. Fuller has organized the bulldozing of the BCMA’s blockhouse and launchpad. Homer Sr. reasons that Homer has broken his end of the bargain—he’s sent rockets into Coalwood, even though he promised to never do so again. Homer Sr. gently advises Homer to wait until after college to pursue rockets. Homer shoots back that he’ll never come back to Coalwood after he goes to college—a remark which hurts his father’s feelings enormously.
Homer has just seen an inspiring reminder that the people of Coalwood support him and the BCMA whole-heartedly, but now Homer refuses to return the favor by expressing his love and respect for the people of Coalwood. Homer’s remarks seem designed to hurt Homer Sr.’s feelings: Homer knows perfectly well that Homer Sr. wants him to be an engineer in the Coalwood mine. Homer isn’t wrong to want to leave Coalwood, but there’s also a sense of spite and personal revenge in his ambitions.
Suddenly, Mr. Dubonnet drives up to Cape Coalwood. He tells Homer Sr. that it’s not right that Fuller is taking apart Homer’s launchpad. Dubonnet even threatens to go on strike if the launchpad isn’t rebuilt immediately. Reluctantly, Homer Sr. goes to talk to Mr. Fuller. Homer watches as his father argues with Mr. Fuller. Though Homer can’t hear anything they’re saying, he’s amazed to see Homer Sr. lift Mr. Fuller off the ground in anger. Afterwards, Homer Sr. tells Homer that he can still use the field.
The chapter ends on another inspiring note: the unions, as well as Coalwood as a whole, stand behind the BCMA. Homer Sr. has been reluctant to lobby for Homer, especially if it means risking his own job with the mining company, so it’s inspiring to see him arguing with Mr. Fuller. It’s also comical to picture him lifting a grown man off the ground like a child—and a reminder that Homer Sr. is a force to be reckoned with.