Homer learns what happened in Coalwood after his nozzles were stolen in Indianapolis. In less than an hour after Homer called his mother, the entire town of Coalwood had been alerted to Homer’s problem. Accompanied by Elsie, Homer Sr. argued “nose-to-nose” with Mr. Dubonnet. In the midst of the argument, Mr. Caton intervened, protesting that he needed to work in the machine shop to print more of the necessary rocket parts. In the ensuing fight, Homer Sr. was forced to give in to the union. The strike coincided with a major deal between the mining company and General Motors—as a result of the new demand for mine labor, the union got its demands. Homer Sr. agreed to sign the necessary documents, ensuring that the fired miners would be given their old jobs back. Afterwards, Mr. Caton proceeded to build new rocket parts for Homer.
Homer’s actions result in the breaking up of the miners’ strike, completely unrelated to his intentions. Homer Sr. offers a powerful act of support for his son, allowing the strike to end so that Mr. Caton can prepare Homer’s nozzles on time. At the same time, he also confirms his devotion to the mine, above all else: he signs the papers so that the miners can get back to work as soon as possible. In all, this section reiterates one of the key ideas of Hickam’s book: Homer isn’t “cut off” from Coalwood by his desire to build rockets. On the contrary he’s deeply connected to life in Coalwood, whether he likes it or not. Homer’s recognition of this fact is among his most important moments of growth.
Homer realizes what Homer Sr.’s decision to sign the union’s agreements mean. Because his relationship with the union is a key part of the new agreement with General Motors, Homer Sr. must stay on at the mine for the foreseeable future—he can’t retire to Myrtle Beach. He admitted to Elsie that he wasn’t good enough for her, and Elsie was so touched by this that she decided to stay in Coalwood with her husband. Homer thinks about his conversation with Jake—when Homer Sr. signed the union papers, he decides, it was a great moment for “God’s plan,” and thus a great moment for Coalwood.
Ironically, Homer Sr. confirms his steadfast devotion to the mine in the same instant that he suggests that he might be more invested in Homer’s success than he lets on. By signing the union papers, he helps Homer while also attaching himself to the mine for the foreseeable future. It’s often frustrating for Homer to try to decipher his father’s feelings, so it’s telling that Homer doesn’t try to do so here: he accepts that what’s happened is a part of “God’s plan.”
Homer and his friends graduate from Big Creek. Dorothy is the valedictorian, and Quentin the salutatorian. Most of the other BCMA members are in the top ten, except for Roy Lee and O’Dell. At graduation, Mr. Turner personally congratulates Homer for bringing honor to his school, and places Homer’s science fair medal in a trophy case next to the football awards. Afterwards, Homer takes Melba June to the graduation dance. He doesn’t see Dorothy again for the next 25 years.
These sections feel like an epilogue to the memoir, as we’ve passed the climax, when Homer was awarded the top prize from the National Science Fair judges. It’s disappointing but realistic that Homer doesn’t reconcile with Dorothy—if this were a work of fiction, we could imagine Homer, the hero, ending up with Dorothy, his love interest. But Hickam is more realistic—Homer doesn’t “get the girl.”
After graduation, the members of the BCMA go in separate directions. Instead of getting college scholarships, O’Dell, Billy, and Roy Lee take the Air Force recruiter up on his offer and join the Air Force—afterwards, they plan to use the GI Bill to go to college for free. With his parents’ help, Sherman finds the money to attend West Virginia Tech. Homer decides to accept his mother’s help with college, and thinks about studying engineering at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute. Quentin enrolls at Marshall College in Huntington, West Virginia. He’s unsure how he’ll pay for this, but Homer senses that he’ll “do fine.”
While Homer and his friends go on to attain great success, they don’t do so in the neat, straightforward way one would expect if this were a conventional work of fiction. For example, none of the BCMA members get scholarship money as a result of their Science Fair win, even though this was Quentin’s plan from the very beginning. Even Homer, who’d vowed never to accept his parents’ charity, goes to college on his mother’s dime, not because of his own hard work. Overall, we see that academic success doesn’t immediately translate into scholarships or lucrative careers. The universe simply doesn’t work out this neatly, Hickam suggests—life is unfair.
With college about to begin, the BCMA decides to say goodbye in style, by launching their remaining rockets into the sky. Quentin proposes that they should launch the rockets from above the ground, first lifting them high with a helium balloon so that they attain a height of many miles. The BCMA announces a final rocket launch at Cape Coalwood, and Homer prepares his final rockets.
The BCMA’s decision to have one final rocket launch reminds us that the BCMA wasn’t only building rockets for the purposes of ambition and scholarship money—they also enjoyed putting on shows, and got intrinsic pleasure out of rocket science.
On the first Saturday in June of 1960—the day of the final rocket launch—Homer is sad to see Homer Sr. walk to the mine for his usual schedule instead of attending. At the launch, there are hundreds of people—one of the biggest crowds in Coalwood history. People have come from across the county for the event. Homer also notices Miss Riley, Jake, and Mr. Turner.
In the last two chapters, Hickam has challenged our expectations of how the story should end, and here he dashes our hopes once again. It seems as if Homer Sr. won’t join Homer for the final rocket launch, even though everything seemed to be building up to such a moment of reconciliation.
The BCMA launches Auks XXVI-XXX exactly as planned, and they attain heights of many miles, wowing the crowd. Finally, Homer announces the launch of Auk XXXI, the final and largest rocket. Inside is the same nozzle that Dr. von Braun praised at the science fair. Just as Homer is about to launch the rocket, he hears a noise—it’s Homer Sr., taking time off from his schedule to witness his son’s achievements.
This is a major development in Rocket Boys: after hundreds of pages of Homer Sr.’s indifference to Homer’s work, he finally shows up for a launch. It’s fair for us to ask why Homer Sr. hasn’t been to one of Homer’s launches before (nobody’s that busy), but it’s implied that Homer Sr. has a hard time admitting that he was wrong—thus, he’s struggling to show his support for his son while also saving face. In the end, his love for his son seems to win out.
Homer calls Homer Sr. to his side and asks him if he would like to launch Auk XXXI himself. Homer Sr. is visibly pleased with this offer. He enthusiastically turns the switch that triggers the fuse to light, and Auk XXXI launches high into the sky with a thunderous burst. Homer and the BCMA watch in awe as their rocket attains a height of more than six miles, and continues shooting up—to the point where nobody can see it. Suddenly, Billy cries out that he sees the rocket falling to earth.
The final rocket launch of the BCMA is hugely successful, and deeply symbolic. The rocket shoots so high that it seems to hang in the heavens without falling to earth—in essence, it defies all expectations. One might say the same of Homer’s life and career.
Homer turns to his father. Homer Sr. is beaming—he praises the rocket for being “beautiful.” Suddenly, he begins to cough, and bends over, as though in pain. Gently, Homer tells his father, “You did really good, Dad. Nobody ever launched a better rocket than you.”
In this touching scene, the tables turn. We’d expected Homer Sr. to praise his son: to compliment him on his rockets, and admit that he’s been secretly rooting for Homer all along. Instead, it is Homer who compliments his father. Perhaps this suggests that there will always be a gap between Homer and Homer Sr.—and Hickam also suggests that Homer has finally reached a new kind of maturity. Instead of begging his father for approval, he now calmly praises his father, refusing to feel sorry for himself any longer. At the same time, Homer Sr. swallows his pride and allows himself to appreciate the beauty of his son’s work. Homer Sr.’s coughing at this moment is also symbolic, as suddenly he seems like the weak one, both physically and emotionally, while Homer takes on the role of maturity and strength.