As the memoir begins, Homer Hickam Jr. is a young teenager living in the mining town of Coalwood, West Virginia. His father is Homer Hickam Sr., the superintendent of the mine, his mother is Elsie Hickam, who makes no secret of her dislike for the mine and mining, and his brother is Jim Hickam, a handsome, popular football player.
In 1957, the Soviet Union launches a satellite called Sputnik into space. Homer and his friends gather outside to watch Sputnik pass over Coalwood. As he watches, Homer realizes that his greatest ambition is to build rockets, and eventually to build satellites for the government, like his hero, Dr. Wernher von Braun.
Homer’s first attempts at building rockets are comical. He ends up blowing up his mother’s prized rose-garden fence, earning him much mockery from the townspeople of Coalwood. Homer Sr. angrily tells Homer to stop making rockets, but Elsie encourages him to continue. She explains that Homer Sr. thinks Homer is unfit for any work other than clerking, so by building rockets, Homer can prove to his father that he’s capable of being a scientist, and he can escape from a life in the mines at Coalwood. Homer resolves to continue building rockets. He also notes that Homer Sr. is far more interested in Jim, due to Jim’s talent as a football player.
Homer speaks to a classmate of his, Quentin, who is bookish and pretentious, but who also knows a huge amount about rockets. Quentin agrees to join with Homer and his friends in building rockets. Homer gathers a group of his close friends: Roy Lee, Sherman, and O’Dell, and, together with Quentin, forms the BCMA, or “Big Creek Missile Academy” (Big Creek is the name of their high school). Meanwhile, Homer tries to work up the courage to ask out his crush, the beautiful and intelligent Dorothy Plunk, but is devastated to find that she’s already dating an older boy.
Quentin and Homer research fuel for their rockets, and settle on a mixture of saltpeter and charcoal. They go to Mr. Isaac Bykovski, a worker at the mine. Bykovski agrees to help Homer by making rocket shafts for him. The ensuing series of rockets—formed from Bykovski’s shafts, powered with Homer and Quentin’s rocket fuel—are unsuccessful, with one of them nearly burning down Homer Sr.’s office at the mine. Homer Sr. angrily repeats his command to Homer—he’s not to make any more rockets. Although Homer wants to obey his father, Elsie and Mr. Bykovski subtly encourage him to continue with the BCMA.
One Sunday, the Coalwood community attends church, where the town reverend, Reverend Josiah Lanier, delivers a sermon about the importance of respecting one’s children and encouraging their dreams. Afterwards, Homer Sr. relents and allows Homer to make rockets. He drives Homer out to an area far from Coalwood called Cape Coalwood, and tells him that he’s free to launch rockets there.
Homer begins his junior year of high school. On the first day, the principal, Mr. R.L. Turner, announces that football has been canceled. Instead, students will be focusing on their studies—a consequence of America’s desire to compete with the Soviet Union in the realms of science and math. Jim and his football friends are furious with this news, since it means that they’ll in all likelihood be unable to get athletic scholarships to college. Meanwhile, the BCMA goes about building a launch area in Cape Coalwood: a launchpad made from concrete, and a blockhouse to protect the boys from shrapnel and smoke from the rockets. To obtain the necessary materials for these projects, Homer and his friends asks Homer Sr. for help, and also communicate with many other miners in Coalwood, including Emmett Jones and Mr. Bykovski. Homer meets another important ally, Jake Mosby, a wealthy, charming man who visits Coalwood to work as an engineer in the mine. Jake provides Homer with support and encouragement, and even lets the members of the BCMA stare at the stars through his telescope.
The BCMA organizes a public rocket launch, which is attended by a modest group of people. These include Jake, Mr. Dubonnet, the leader of the miners’ union (and, as a result, a frequent enemy of Homer Sr.), and Basil Oglethorpe, an enthusiastic reporter who writes gushing stories about the BCMA in his paper.
In school, Homer notices that he’s becoming more popular—girls are flirting with him. One girl, Valentine Carmina, hints that Homer should forget Dorothy and go out with her instead. Meanwhile, the BCMA obtains a set of old phone lines, which they use to coordinate rocket launches at Cape Coalwood. To their horror, Mr. Van Dyke, the main superintendent of the mine, calls them to his office and informs them that they’ve stolen company property. They promise to pay off their debt—35 dollars—over the course of the next year. Homer gains another valuable ally, the chemistry teacher Miss Riley. Miss Riley oversees student entries to the county science fair, and she encourages Homer and his friends to enter in the event. While Quentin is eager to compete, Homer is more reluctant, and he insists that the BCMA isn’t ready for competition yet.
Homer continues to rely on Mr. Bykovski for help with designing rockets. Shortly after he gets some rocket nozzles from Bykovski, Homer discovers that Homer Sr. has punished Bykovski by sending him to work deep in the mines. When Homer apologizes to Mr. Bykovski for getting him in trouble, Bykovski only laughs and tells Homer to keep building his rockets. Homer also notices that someone—perhaps even his father, he thinks—is leaving extra ingredients for him to use for rockets: scrap iron, concrete, etc.
At the end of 1958 Homer asks Dorothy to the high school dance, but she turns him down. Nevertheless, Homer has a wonderful Christmas—Elsie has written a letter to Dr. von Braun, and has received a reply: a signed photograph of von Braun, addressed to Homer. Shortly afterwards, Homer and the BCMA organize more rocket launches. Their rockets, featuring a stable form of rocket fuel, and carefully designed by Mr. Bykovski, attain heights of many thousands of feet. Homer notices that many people are showing up for the launches, many of them pretty women.
One day, Homer and Quentin agree that they need to master calculus if they’re to build more efficient rockets. Together, they talk to their math teacher, Mr. Hartsfield, and then Mr. Turner, both of whom are reluctant to establish a new class. Shortly after their request is denied, Homer and Quentin are called to the office, where they find two state troopers. The offices accuse Homer and Quentin of starting a vast forest fire. Miss Riley bursts into the office, where she defends her students. Quentin saves the day when he proves that the “rocket” that supposedly caused the fire isn’t a BCMA rocket at all, but a flare, probably dropped by a passing airplane. Embarrassed by the incident, Mr. Turner agrees to introduce a calculus class at Big Creek. Ironically, Homer is unable to take the class, because his grades aren’t good enough: Dorothy Plunk takes his position.
Homer is disappointed that he can’t learn calculus from Mr. Hartsfield, but Quentin volunteers to teach Homer himself. Homer Sr. seems irritated that Homer is teaching himself mathematics for the sake of rocketing—he reminds Homer that he should be concentrating on his career in the mine.
One night, Homer and the BCMA go dancing at a party organized by Ed Johnson, a local music-lover. There, Homer is horrified to see Dorothy dancing with Jim. Homer turns to Valentine, who’s also at the dance, and it’s implied that Homer loses his virginity to Valentine that night. Afterwards, Homer walks home, where he finds the town in chaos over a horrible mining accident: a fan has stopped working, meaning that the miners are losing their only source of oxygen. Homer Sr. dives into the mine, where he badly injures his eye, and Mr. Bykovski dies. Homer is horrified by Bykovski’s death—he thinks that if it hadn’t been for his rockets, Bykovski would never have been sent into the deepest part of the mine to begin with.
Homer falls into depression following Mr. Bykovski’s death. The town reverends, Reverend Lanier and Reverend “Little” Richard, encourage him to stop feeling sorry for himself and continue with his rockets. Miss Riley tells Homer that if he doesn’t pursue his rockets now, he’ll regret it for the rest of his life. Homer reluctantly agrees to continue with his designs, and at the next rocket launch, his rocket reaches a height of 4,000 feet—a record for the BCMA. Homer argues with the other members of the BCMA over the specificities of their new rockets, and Roy Lee accuses Homer of being too self-focused. Homer reluctantly admits that Roy Lee is exactly right, and henceforth, he resolves to be a “team player.”
With Jake’s help, the BCMA obtains a valuable new fuel source, zinc oxide. They use this fuel to develop rockets that can reach far greater heights than their predecessors. Meanwhile, there is a union strike, and Mr. Van Dyke is forced to leave Coalwood. He’s replaced by Mr. Fuller, a loud, pugnacious man whom nearly everyone dislikes. When Fuller learns about the BCMA, he angrily orders them to desist their dangerous activities. At first, Homer Sr. tells Homer to comply with Fuller’s orders, but then, urged by Elsie, he negotiates with Fuller so that the BCMA can continue its launches.
Homer and Quentin learn calculus and gas equations in order to calculate the optimal shape for their rocket nozzles. Finally, they master the necessary design problems, and proudly present their findings to Miss Riley and Mr. Hartsfield. Homer enlists the help of Mr. Ferro and Mr. Caton, two mining workers, to help him build the intricately shaped nozzles needed for rockets that can reach heights of three miles.
At their next rocket launch, the BCMA’s rockets reach impressive heights, but far less than what they’d hoped for. After the launch, Home goes to a school dance with Melba June Monroe, a pretty classmate of his, and they make out.
In early 1960, John F. Kennedy has begun his campaign for the presidency. Meanwhile, there is a series of union strikes, which grow increasingly large and violent. One day, someone tries to shoot Homer Sr. in his home. Although Homer discovers that the bullet fired is only a .22—a nonlethal, pop gun pellet—he’s still disturbed. Shortly after the incident, Elsie announces that she’s purchased a house in Myrtle Beach. For years, she explains, she’s been using Homer Sr.’s money to invest in the stock market, so that now, she and Homer Sr. have enough money to live comfortably for the rest of their lives.
Homer learns that Miss Riley has been diagnosed with cancer. He resolves to enter in the upcoming county science fair, perfecting his rocket designs so that he’ll have a chance to win. Miss Riley is glad to hear that Homer will be competing. She tells him that only one member of the BCMA can present at the fair—this should be Homer, since he’s the President of the BCMA, and the most prepared member.
In the weeks leading up to the science fair, Mr. Caton is unable to help Homer any further, because the union is on strike. Homer plans to sneak into Mr. Caton’s machine store and finish the rocket designs himself. He does, only to find Mr. Caton himself, secretly working on the rocket. Mr. Caton promises to leave the finished rocket for Homer very soon.
Homer attends the county science fair, armed with his presentation, his knowledge of propulsion and physics, and the new rockets Mr. Caton has made for him. The judges at the fair are initially dismissive of Homer’s designs, since they seem dangerous, but in the end, Homer and the BCMA win first prize. Miss Riley and Mr. turner are overjoyed with this news. Shortly afterwards, Homer attends a school dance with Melba June. Homer then attends the state science fair, which he wins, meaning that he’ll be attending the National Science Fair in Indianapolis.
At their next rocket launch, the BCMA launches rockets to a height of 15,000 feet, exactly as Homer has predicted. After the launch, Roy Lee comes to Homer with startling news: he’s learned who fired at Homer Sr. The culprit feels horrible about his crime, however, and will likely leave town soon. Homer is touched by this news, and decides not to ask Roy Lee for this person’s name. Homer realizes that Coalwood is full of good, honest people, like Roy Lee and his father.
In preparation for the National Science Fair, Homer goes to a suit store in a neighboring town and purchases a shocking orange suit. Afterwards, he attends a surprise rally where John F. Kennedy is speaking. Kennedy takes questions from the audience, and, noticing Homer’s suit, asks Homer to speak. Homer asks Kennedy if he’ll send men to the moon, and Kennedy enthusiastically replies that he will. Afterwards, Homer returns his suit and trades it out for a more modest blue one.
At the National Science Fair in Indianapolis, Homer is dismayed to find that his competitors have polished, highly sophisticated projects. He’s afraid that he’ll come back to Coalwood empty-handed, confirming, in the eyes of the townspeople, that he’s an arrogant, overly ambitious young man. The night before the fair, Homer discovers that his rocket nozzles and casings have been stolen. Frantically, he calls his mother in Coalwood, and begs her to find a way to send him more materials. Miraculously, Elsie tells him that there will be nozzles and casings waiting for him on the next morning train to Indianapolis. Homer goes to the train station and finds them. At the Fair, Homer is awarded the top prize in the category of propulsion.
When Homer returns to Coalwood, he learns that Miss Riley has been sent to the hospital—her cancer has worsened. Jake consoles Homer and tells him that he must accept tragedy and sadness in his life, while also embracing the good.
Afterwards, Homer learns that his request for more rocket parts indirectly played a major role in ending the union strike. Mr. Caton and his friends protested that the strike needed to be broken up so that he could finish Homer’s rockets immediately. Pressured by Mr. Dubonnet, Mr. Caton, and others, Homer Sr. agreed to sign the required papers, restoring laid-off miners to their original positions. One consequence of this agreement is that Homer Sr. will be unable to join Elsie in Myrtle Beach: he’s agreed to stay on as superintendent for the foreseeable future. Elsie agrees to stay in Coalwood for a little longer with Homer Sr.
Homer and the BCMA decide to hold one last rocket launch. Homer is surprised to see Homer Sr. in attendance—previously, he’s been too busy at the mine to make time to see his son’s launches. Homer asks his father to launch the final rocket. Homer Sr. does so, and seems impressed with the results.
After their victory at the National Science Fair, the members of the BCMA go their separate ways. None of them get scholarship money as a result of their science fair success, but most of them find ways of paying for college anyway. Three of them, including Homer and Quentin, become engineers, and Homer goes on to work for NASA, designing space shuttles. As an adult, Homer continues to have a distant relationship with his father, and when Homer is a middle-aged man, his father finally dies of lung failure, stoically refusing pain medication up to the day of his death. Ultimately, the town of Coalwood shuts down, and the miners move elsewhere. Homer looks back on Coalwood with a mixture of sadness and respect. Coalwood made him the man he is today, he admits, and as long as its people remember it fondly, it will live forever.