Homer explains that all of the BCMA members went on to college—something inconceivable before the age of Sputnik. Roy Lee became a banker, O’Dell became a farmer, and Sherman died, tragically, of a heart attack when he was only 26 years old. Billy, Quentin, and Homer became engineers. Jim became a hugely successful football coach. Homer admits that he’s enormously proud to be Jim’s brother.
Hickam isn’t writing a work of fiction, and this means that not everyone lives “happily ever after.” Sherman’s sudden death comes as a shock, as does Homer’s admission that he’s proud to be Jim’s brother. We’ve seen Homer make moral progress throughout, learning to respect people with whom he has considerable differences. By finally voicing his love and respect for Jim, Homer proves that he comes of age.
Homer continues to explain what happened to the characters in Rocket Boys. “Dorothy”—which he admits is a false name—became a wonderful wife and mother. When Homer saw Dorothy again, 25 years later, he found that he still loved her. Miss Riley died of cancer at the age of 32, in 1969.
The women in Rocket Boys simply don’t have the same opportunities as men: they inspire great, productive careers, but they don’t always have successful careers themselves. This is especially noticeable in the case of Dorothy—she was as ambitious as Homer, and much better at math, yet Dorothy never became an engineer. The BCMA remained a “boys’ club,” a microcosm of the sexism inherent in American society (especially in scientific fields, and especially at the time). Miss Riley’s death is also heartbreaking—she devotes her life to helping young people learn, and yet doesn’t get to do so for more than a decade.
Homer, inspired by his dreams of lunar colonization and global freedom, fought in Vietnam. He never met Dr. von Braun, who died of cancer in 1977. In 1981, Homer finally became a NASA engineer in Alabama, at von Braun’s old headquarters. Homer often went to Cape Canaveral to watch space shuttle launches. He even traveled to Russia to meet with the engineers who launched Sputnik. In short, his NASA career was “everything I hoped and dreamed it would be.”
Rocket Boys isn’t the entire story of Hickam’s life—his experiences in Vietnam would make for a whole other book— but it’s enough for Hickam to say that his dreams of working at NASA came true. In essence, he’s saying that he, at least, lived “happily ever after.”
Homer Sr. continued to work at the mine for years, despite his damaged lungs. He was forced to retire at the age of 65, at which time he continued to work as a consultant for the mining company for another five years. Finally, he joined Elsie at the house in Myrtle Beach.
Homer Sr. continues to be stubborn and stoic, working in the mine long after any other man would retire. Yet he doesn’t forget about or abandon Elsie, and eventually, he seems to recognize that his family is as important as his profession.
In 1989, Homer received news from Elsie that the mines at Coalwood were finally shutting down. When Homer talked with his father on the phone, Homer Sr. sounded healthy and confident—nevertheless, Elsie told Homer that Homer Sr.’s lungs were rapidly deteriorating. Within a few days, Homer Sr. was dead. Homer flew back to West Virginia, strangely comforted by the fact that he wasn’t present for his father’s death. Since leaving Coalwood, Homer wasn’t close with his father—they rarely talked except on vacations and over the holidays. When he spoke to the doctors, Homer learned that Homer Sr. had died of lung failure, and that he’d refused all medical help up to the very end of his life.
Homer and Homer Sr. simply don’t have a close relationship. In this sense, Hickam resists the urge to give his story a happy ending—the unfortunate reality is that Homer’s efforts to please his father don’t pay off. Homer Sr. continues to view rockets and NASA with suspicion, despite his son’s work. In the end, there’s something almost self-destructive about Homer Sr.’s stubbornness—he denies himself the chance to be happy. This is aptly symbolized by the manner of his death. Even though he’s surrounded by people who want him to be happy, Homer Sr. persists in refusing medical help and making himself feel pain.
After Homer Sr.’s death, Homer looked through the old boxes left at his parents’ house in Coalwood. Among these boxes, he found one labeled with his name. Inside, he was amazed to find his old science fair prizes, along with a beautiful rocket nozzle.
While he’s not especially close with his parents, Homer now recognizes that they do love him and respect his achievements as a scientist—as shown by saving his medals.
In 1997, Homer’s friend, Dr. Takao Doi, carried one of Homer’s science fair medals aboard the space ship Columbia as it launched into space. Homer was thrilled: “the BCMA was finally going into space.”
Homer’s experiences with the BCMA continue to inspire him throughout his life—this is why he insists on taking their old medal into outer space.
Homer contemplates Coalwood. The town is largely abandoned now: without a mine, there are few residents left, and the old community places—the Club House, for example—are old and decayed. Nevertheless, Homer maintains that “Coalwood still lives” in the hearts of those who remember it fondly. Coalwood will always live on, he concludes, for the BCMA—who remember their childhoods, during which they were inspired by the love of their friends, their teachers, and their fellow townspeople.
Throughout Rocket Boys, Homer has struggled with conflicted feelings for Coalwood. At times he’s despised it, considering it a hostile, hopeless place where no sane person would choose to live—but at other times, Homer has seen Coalwood as a friendly place, full of concerned townspeople who want to help others. In the end, Homer comes to something of a compromise: he recognizes that Coalwood is full of good people who have helped him along the way to NASA, but he also concedes that for a scientist like himself, Coalwood could never be a lasting home. For most of the memoir, Homer has wanted to escape Coalwood, but now that he’s long gone, Hickam looks back on his hometown with a sweet, melancholy nostalgia.