In the months leading up to the National Science Fair, Homer notices Miss Riley getting healthier and seemingly happier. She visits Homer to prep him for the competition, giving him elaborate notes on how to present his findings. Quentin helps Homer prepare, as well—he visits Homer’s house and gives him charts and diagrams on nozzle functions. O’Dell prepares a beautiful case for the BCMA’s rocket parts, and Sherman and Billy photograph Cape Coalwood to make Homer’s presentation more visually interesting.
Miss Riley continues to devote herself to Homer’s success, and indeed, her devotion to Homer seems to correlate closely with her own health. In general, the BCMA’s preparation is a team effort, with everyone contributing equally to the success of the “mission” to Indianapolis.
Meanwhile, the Coalwood miners continue to strike. Some try to break the strike line in an effort to make money and feed their families, but the strikers prevent them from doing so. Mr. Caton begs Mr. Dubonnet for a chance to help the BCMA prepare new nozzles for their presentation, and Mr. Dubonnet relents. Caton outdoes himself with a set of shiny new nozzles, precisely designed for maximum efficiency. Homer notices that Homer Sr. seems relatively uninterested in Homer’s science fair pursuits. He rarely brings up the subject.
As the BCMA gets closer and closer to the National Science Fair, it becomes more and more apparent that Homer Sr. isn’t interested in their success at all—or at least he doesn’t show any signs of interest. Homer Sr. is notoriously stubborn, and refuses to admit that he was wrong about anything, so it’s entirely possible that he secretly wants Homer to succeed, but just won’t admit changing his mind.
Shortly before the science fair begins, Homer overhears Elsie ask Homer Sr. if he’s told the company he’s quitting yet. Homer Sr. replies that he’ll need to wait until the strike ends—he doesn’t want the mining company to think that the union intimidated him into retiring. Elsie accepts this explanation, but doesn’t seem happy. Homer spends the night before he leaves for Indianapolis talking with Quentin, who drills him on trigonometry, calculus, physics, chemistry, and other difficult subjects.
Quentin may not be presenting in Indianapolis, but he’s still an invaluable part of the BCMA. From the beginning, Quentin’s intelligence has been the guiding force behind the rockets’ success, and now it’s as if he’s passed on his intelligence and drive to Homer.
Homer travels to Indianapolis by bus. Many Coalwoodians show up to see Homer off: Basil, Mr. Turner, Melba June, Mr. Dubonnet, Homer Sr., Elsie, Mr. Caton, Mr. Ferro, and the entire BCMA. Just before Homer gets on the bus, he sees Miss Riley in Jake’s Corvette—and she looks very happy.
Homer’s success seems correlated to the success of the town of Coalwood: when he’s doing well, others are doing well, and vice versa. As proof, we see Miss Riley with Jake again—it’s as if the BCMA’s success has translated into good fortune in her own life.
At the Science Fair in Indiana, Homer surveys his competition. He’s initially afraid because a team from Texas is also presenting on rocket propulsion, but he’s relieved when he sees that none of their designs rival the BCMA’s in sophistication. Homer befriends a competitor named Orville, who’s presenting on electromagnets as well as rocket nozzles. Orville warns Homer that neither one of them will win a prize at the competition, because the prizes always go to big, expensive projects. Homer walks around the exposition hall, and senses that Orville may be correct. The other projects are lavish and beautifully presented, including a self-contained biosphere complete with a pair of monkeys. Orville adds that the judges dislike rocketry, because they find it dangerous. Homer’s heart sinks.
Hickam enjoys describing the temporary setbacks afflicting the BCMA along its path to success, like Orville informing Homer that he doesn’t have a chance of winning. In essence, Orville is saying that Homer’s best effort simply isn’t good enough, that there will always be definite limits on what a boy from Coalwood is capable of, simply by virtue of being poor and lacking the necessary budget to wow the science fair judges. Whether Orville is right or wrong about this remains to be seen, but for the time being, it causes Homer plenty of consternation.
The fair lasts three full days before the judges make their assessments. During the first two days, Homer notes that his project draws a big crowd, but Orville warns that this means nothing by itself—rockets are inherently popular. On the second night of the competition, Orville and Homer join the other competitors for a big group dinner. Homer finds that he misses West Virginia. He wonders what he’ll do if he’s forced to go home empty-handed.
As when Homer went camping with the BCMA, being away from Coalwood reminds him of how much he loves his town, despite its many flaws. This scene also reminds us that Homer isn’t only competing for the BCMA—he’s competing for honor and respect, both from his father and the people of Coalwood.
On the second night of the fair, Homer passes through the exhibition hall and is shocked to find his rocket parts missing. Homer complains to the security guard, who tells Homer that he’s in a big city—he needs to lock his things up. Homer is stunned. He’s left with his display case, his photographs, and his equations, but not his nozzles, casements, or nose cones—so his presentation will make no sense.
Homer gets a nasty reminder that he’s not in Coalwood anymore: he’s not prepared for life in a big city, where there’s more of a danger of theft and other crimes. This is crushing for Homer: he’s been planning to leave Coalwood, and yet he’s hasn’t realized how little he knows about life outside Coalwood.
With no other option, Homer calls his home. He explains to Elsie that he needs extra rocket parts, immediately. Elsie explains to Homer that this will be impossible—Homer Sr. is busy with the strike. Homer goes to bed, thinking that, much like his father, he’s been “too big for his britches.”
Homer’s career as a rocket scientist seems to have come to a disappointing close: he’s failed to impress the judges in Indianapolis, and his failure stems directly from his upbringing (if he’d been from a big city, he wouldn’t have let his things be stolen).
Late at night, Homer wakes up to a call from his mother. She explains that there’s a box waiting for him at the train station. The next morning, Homer rushes to the train station, where he finds a box with extra rocket parts. Hugely relieved, Homer prepares for the judges’ assessments.
Miraculously, Homer receives rocket parts from Coalwood. While it isn’t immediately explained how this could happen, it’s clear that Homer has underestimated Coalwood considerably: the townspeople are devoted to him, and work together to make sure that he succeeds in Indianapolis.
On the day of the judges’ assessments, Homer puts on his blue suit and sets up his display. That morning, Orville gives him some surprising news: while Homer was frantically looking for his rocket parts, Orville and the other competitors told the judges panel that if Homer wasn’t given a “fair shake,” they would protest. As a result, the judges have added a special propulsion category to the fair.
Homer realizes that he’s no more alone in Indianapolis than he was in Coalwood—he can always rely on his friends and well-wishers for help. This is a stark change from the way Homer had viewed the world earlier in the memoir, where he’d thought of himself as a lonely individual, fighting for success against the world.
The judges begin to assess the competitors’ designs. One of the judges, a middle-aged, German-accented man, tells Homer that he’s on von Braun’s research team. The man asks Homer difficult questions about propulsion, and Homer answer them skillfully. Afterwards, the man compliments Homer, and tells him that von Braun is at the science fair. Homer runs to find von Braun, but can’t locate him. When he returns to his display, Orville informs him that von Braun himself stopped by Homer’s display and complimented his nozzles, calling them “marvelous.” The judges award Homer the top prize for propulsion, and Orville comes in second. Homer is exhilarated by his success.
Ironically, it’s Homer’s own desire to find von Braun that results in his not seeing him at all—if he’d only stayed put, von Braun would have come to him. There’s also some metaphorical significance to this fact, as Homer sometimes tries a little too hard to succeed, cutting himself off from his peers and assuming that he has to do everything himself. Homer’s success at the science fair is the result of his own hard work, but also the support of his friends, especially Orville—indeed, if it hadn’t been for Orville, Homer wouldn’t have his medal.
Homer returns to Coalwood. When he gets off his bus, he’s surprised by a crowd of his friends and supporters. As they cheer, Roy Lee pulls Homer aside and tells him that Miss Riley is in the hospital. Horrified, Homer and the other BCMA members visit Miss Riley in the hospital in Welch. There, they find Jake tending to Miss Riley, who looks weak and pale. Homer shows Miss Riley his medal, and Miss Riley seems overjoyed. Homer senses that he’ll never know anyone as kind and good as she is.
When Homer returns to Coalwood, he’s reminded that he’s only achieved his success with the help of a great number of other people. At the same time, Homer has to face the crushing fact that Miss Riley has cancer, and might not live much longer. At his greatest moment of success, this must come as an especially heavy blow.
Homer leaves Miss Riley’s side, tearfully, and Jake runs after him. Jake tells him that God has a plan for everyone, and that Homer can’t let Miss Riley’s illness interfere with his happiness at having won the Science Fair. Homer angrily accuses Jake of drinking too much—an accusation which Jake doesn’t deny. Nevertheless, Jake argues, Homer must take pleasure in his life, and continue to pursue his dreams of rocketry and engineering. Homer confesses to Jake that he’s afraid of his future. Jake only laughs, and tells Homer that everyone is.
It’s ironic that Homer’s most important moral lesson, arguably, comes from Jake—not a particularly moral person. Homer has come a long way in Rocket Boys: he’s learned to balance ambition with realism, and individualism with collaboration. Here, he learns to balance his joy with sadness: he realizes that he can be happy about winning a medal but also sad about Miss Riley.