A considerable chunk of Rocket Boys consists of Hickam’s descriptions of how, as a teenager, he went about finding the raw materials he needed to build sophisticated rockets. To get the tin needed to weld a rocket casing, for instance, Homer has to negotiate with Reverend “Little” Richard, who has purchased extra tin for repairing his roof. To get it, Homer has to provide the Reverend with shingles for his roof—and Homer has to get these from Emmet Jones, in exchange for a shipment of soil. The entire process is frustrating, and often hilariously painstaking. At many points in Rocket Boys, Homer notes that the students in Welch, a wealthier area of West Virginia, wouldn’t have so much difficulty designing a rocket—with their extra money, they could simply buy the necessary materials.
Homer and his friends face considerable disadvantages as residents of a small, impoverished mining town. They have to scrimp and save for every piece of metal they find, and whenever they find what they’re looking for, it seems like a miracle. Yet Hickam shows how the scarcity of resources in Coalwood actually makes Homer and his friends better scientists, more dedicated innovators, and, ultimately, more successful people. At many points during their experiments, Homer and his friends are tempted to add multiple “features” to a rocket at once—shorter fins, screws on the nozzle, a rounder cone, etc. Quentin, the most bookish and careful-minded “Rocket boy,” cautions against this reckless approach, however, because it’s not scientific—the only way to know which features work and which don’t work, he argues, is to make one change at a time. Homer eventually comes to realize that Quentin is right, and they have to get the most “mileage” from their scrap iron, saltpeter, wood, etc. This involves isolating and testing each resource, very slowly.
The rocket boys’ painstaking approach ultimately results in the best rocket imaginable. An agonizingly slow pace forces them to understand the nuances of their materials, and gives them the time to develop some of their most important innovations, such as a curved nozzle and alcohol-cured rocket fuel. A wealthier team of experimenters, by contrast, might be tempted to buy all the necessary materials at once, build a decent rocket, and then never improve it. Indeed, this is exactly the fate of the rockets built by Homer’s rivals, the wealthy students at Welch High School.
As Homer prepares for the science fair, he faces the dismissiveness of teachers and students who assume that, because he’s from a poor town, he’ll never have the resources to win a competition, but Hickam takes great pains to correct this misconception. In the end, Hickam passes on an important message about the value of hard work and a slow pace: while these things may be frustrating, they’re the cornerstones of good science.
Hard Work, Scarcity, Science, and Innovation ThemeTracker
Hard Work, Scarcity, Science, and Innovation Quotes in Rocket Boys
The first rocket emitted a boil of nasty, stinking, yellowish smoke and then fell over, the glue on its fins melted. “Wonderful,” Roy Lee muttered, holding his nose. Quentin silently wrote the result down on a scrap of notebook paper. Body of knowledge.
“Love to help ya, I really would,” he said, “but I don’t have enough for my roof as it is.”
I looked up. “But your roof is shingled.”
He nodded “If I had shingles, I’d use ‘em. But I don’t. I’ve got tin.”
“Emmett Jones has a bunch of shingles stacked up next to his coal box,” O’Dell said. “almost the same color.”
Machining and materials for gravel. Gravel, like all things in Coalwood, could be supplied by my father. After I completed my engineering drawing of the nozzle, there was nothing to do but to go up to the mine. Dad looked up from his desk when I entered his office. “I heard you’ve been talking to Ike Bykovski,” he said. “And now you’re visiting Leon Ferro. You get around, don’t you?”
I suddenly felt proud of [my father], more than for just his long-ago act of heroism, but because of what he had once been back in Gary and all that he had become because of his hard work.
I told him about my conversation with the machinist. “I think he’s right,”: I said. “It’ll take us forever your way.”
“And when this rocket blows up and you don’t have a clue what caused it?” Quentin asked, his face pinched. “What will you have learned then?”
“You had the calculus class, Quentin. You work them.”
“No,” he said adamantly. “Miss Riley gave you the book. You know calculus as well as I do. Quit stalling!”