As the mine superintendent, Homer Sr. brings new mining engineers in from Ohio and shows them how to work in Coalwood. One such engineer is Jake Mosby, who, Homer notes, would come to be very important to the BCMA. Homer knows Jake Mosby because Homer used to run a paper route to make money, and he would talk to Jake on his route. Jake lives in a boardinghouse, and is a heavy drinker, and Homer was surprised to learn from Elsie that Jake’s father is a wealthy man. Homer later sees Jake drunkenly dancing with a secretary at the mining company. He admires Jake for his “ease” with women. Slowly, over the course of his paper deliveries, Homer and Jake become friends, and Homer listens to Jake’s stories about being a fighter pilot in Korea.
In many coming of age stories, there’s a “fairy godmother”—a character who is whimsical, friendly, and blessed with boundless sums of money. Jake Mosby is Homer’s fairy godmother: over the course of Rocket Boys, Jake will often help Homer and his friends with money or gifts. For the time being, however, Jake seems more like another father figure for the lonely, isolated Homer, and also someone to aspire to in terms of interacting with women.
In the summer of 1958, the mining company opens a bigger mine in Caretta, meaning that Coalwood no longer mines as much coal. Meanwhile, the BCMA proceeds with its experiments. O’Dell fails to find concrete—a necessity for building a stable launchpad for the rockets. As a result, Homer asks his father for help, and ends up visiting the mine to talk in person.
The first signs that Coalwood is shutting down (the “canary in the coalmine,” as it were), arrive in 1958, when Coalwood loses a significant chunk of its business to a neighboring mine. Homer Sr. still gives no sign that he recognizes what’s happening.
While he is at the mine, Homer sees Mr. Dubonnet, who continues to encourage him with his rockets. Homer has the idea of putting up a notice about his rocket launches at the Big Store. Afterwards, Homer meets with his father and asks about concrete. Homer Sr. replies that the mining company has no extra cement, but mentions that he knows an engineer who left ruined cement at an abandoned section of the mine—Homer can have this cement, he concludes.
The contrast between Mr. Dubonnet, who cheerfully encourages Homer to make more rockets, and Homer Sr., who gruffly gives Homer some used cement, seems perfectly clear. Yet Homer Sr. now at least seems willing to help Homer with his rockets, even if grudgingly so.
Homer and the BCMA go to the abandoned corner of the mine and find mint-condition cement. Homer wonders what this could mean—it’s as if Homer Sr. is giving him excellent supplies while saying that he’s giving him poor supplies.
Homer Sr. has been cold and unsupportive of Homer in the past, but now he seems more invested in his son’s success—he just doesn’t want to admit it.
The BCMA digs a hole by Cape Coalwood and pours cement into it. Nearby is the group’s “blockhouse,” which has sturdy walls and a tin roof to protect from shrapnel. With the launchpad and the blockhouse established, the BCMA concludes that it’s ready to fire rockets once again. Sherman posts a notice at the post office and Big Store.
In this short expository section, Hickam details the BCMA’s progress with building the blockhouse and launchpad. After a series of setbacks, they seem to be moving ahead with their plans.
The rocket launch takes place on a Saturday, and Mr. Dubonnet is in attendance, along with Jake Mosby. Homer notices that Jake has brought a strangely dressed man with him, who introduces himself as Basil Oglethorpe. Jake explains that Basil is the editor of a local paper.
Jake is already proving himself valuable to the BCMA. Although Sherman is ostensibly in charge of publicity, Jake gives the BCMA considerably more publicity than it had planned on with the introduction of Basil.
The rocket launching begins, and Roy Lee lights the fuse for Auk V. It climbs about fifty feet into the air before swerving suddenly and moving toward the crowd. Everyone runs away, terrified. Basil finds the spectacle hilarious and exciting, and scribbles notes. Jake, however, is a little traumatized by the sight—he tells Homer that it reminds him of Korea. Mr. Dubonnet suggests to Homer that the BCMA let the rocket fuel “cure” for two weeks. Because he’s worked with saltpeter before, he knows that it has to be very dry before it can be mixed. Quentin notes that the group needs to find a better steering system. In general, everyone seems satisfied with the BCMA’s progress.
Even in this moment of success for the BCMA, Hickam casts a shadow over the story, as the rockets remind Jake of Korea. This is an understandable reaction: millions of soldiers suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, whereby they can experience severe panic and anxiety at even the slightest reminder of their war experiences. This is also a reminder that America’s new focus on math and science isn’t some pure-minded endeavor—even encouraging children to build rockets is, in essence, a way of supporting its wars.
In July, all the miners go on vacation. Homer remembers past vacations he’s taken with his family—on one, Homer Sr. and Elsie were affectionate, and even slept in the same bed. When the time came for them to return to Coalwood, Elsie wept. Homer prepares three rockets—Auks VI, VII, and VIII—for launching by curing them in the basement. The BCMA decides to launch them when they’re back from vacation. Homer is excited about this, since he’s been experimenting with new ways to attach fins to his rockets, thereby making their steering more even. Homer confesses to O’Dell that he wants Dorothy to come to the next launching. O’Dell advises Homer to get over his infatuation—Dorothy is dating other people.
Homer Sr.’s time away from Coalwood is good for his health and his happiness. We get the sense that he doesn’t like Coalwood much more than Elsie does, even if he’s too proud and stubborn to admit it. On vacations, Homer Sr. can be himself and be affectionate with his wife, while in Coalwood, he’s stern, stoic, and unreachable. Meanwhile, Hickam reminds us of Homer’s romantic feelings for Dorothy. O’Dell may be a realist, but his advice does little to discourage Homer, who’s still in the throes of young, idealistic love.
After vacation, the BCMA proceeds with another launching. Jake is present, along with Basil. This time, Auk VI “steers” straight, thanks to Homer’s fin designs, and fires considerably higher, thanks to the longer-cured saltpeter. Auks VII and VIII aren’t as successful, though they’re thrilling enough for Basil. Jake repeats his remarks about Korea.
It’s not clear exactly why Jake keeps attending the launches, considering that they clearly remind him of wartime trauma. The only plausible answer is that he’s a great friend and supporter to Homer and the other Rocket Boys.
The next weekend, Homer gets a visit from Mr. Bykovski, who offers to teach Homer more welding. Homer senses that Homer Sr. sent Bykovski, perhaps because he felt guilty about sending Bykovski to the mines. After a few lessons, Homer feels fairly competent with welding. Homer Sr. asks him if he’s an “expert,” and Homer replies, modestly, that he has a lot of work to do before he’s an expert. This reply surprises Homer Sr. Homer asks his father about the hardest thing he’s ever learned, and Homer Sr. replies that entropy—the principle that matter naturally progress to a higher state of disorder—is the hardest thing he’s ever learned. He adds that he finds it difficult to believe in entropy—he can’t image “what God was thinking.”
Hickam gives us another hint that Homer Sr. isn’t as unkind and unfeeling as he sometimes seems—he’s capable of love and sympathy for his son and his employees, too. It’s also psychologically appropriate that Homer Sr. can’t stand the concept of entropy, as entropy dictates that everything comes to an end—even the town of Coalwood will eventually become too decayed and disorderly to be worth living in. Just as Homer Sr. refuses to believe that the future is coming, so he refuses to accept the abstract concept of entropy.
At the end of the summer, Jake calls Homer and summons the BCMA to the Coalwood Club House. Homer, accompanied only by Sherman (the only one available), goes to the Club House, and finds Jake carrying a long telescope and a trigonometry textbook. Jake explains that the boys can use math to calculate the height their rockets attain. It’s getting late, but for the next few hours, Jake shows Homer and Sherman how to use the telescope, and they see Jupiter, the other planets, and the stars. Homer and Sherman find the telescope so fascinating that after Jake dozes off, they continue looking through it. They see a meteor shower, so beautiful that they can only say, “Wow.”
Jake again proves his worth to the BCMA by inspiring them to continue with their rocket building. Looking through Jake’s telescope, Homer remembers the feeling of wonder he felt when watching Sputnik fly above Coalwood. It’s important that Homer remember this feeling as he proceeds with his experiments. Hickam ends the chapter with a reminder of the progress Homer still has to make. He’ll have to master trigonometry to be a successful rocket scientist.