A small town in America, primarily at the home of the narrator.
Narrator of the story.
Mother / Lilly
Doug's mother, who wishes her husband to stop traveling to outer space.
Doug's father, torn between outer space and his family.
Dad, who is torn between space travel and staying on Earth with his family.
Mother, who wishes to keep Dad on Earth for good.
Dad leaves for what he claims is his last trip through space, but dies in the Sun.
Doug and Mother avoid the sun for a long time afterwards.
The main theme is the struggle between adventure and peace, or between danger and comfort. The father figure is torn between his love of space travel and a sense of responsibility to his family. As he states in the story, being in one place always makes him long for the other place - perhaps a statement on man's inability to be content. A related theme is the acceptance of death and its cost on survivors. The mother admits to coping with her husband's absence by considering him dead; however, his actual death is even worse, as it happens on the sun, a twist on what happens in "The Long Rain". The symbol of life has become a symbol of death, upending the lives of the narrator and his mother.
Narrated by Doug, the story begins one night when his mother asks him to help keep his father at home this time. Neither Doug nor his mother can sleep, and they hear when Dad's rocket passes over the town on the way to landing in Springfield. Still in bed, he hears his father arrive at the house; three hours later, Doug sneaks into his parents' room to open up the case with his father's uniform, where he found the smells of other planets and outer space. He places it into a centrifuge to extract a fine powder of dust from outer space, then returns the uniform in its case before morning. He woke to hear the dry cleaning card pick up the uniform box for cleaning, and is satisfied with the vial of dust he obtained.
Coming downstairs for breakfast, he's greeted by his father as if he hadn't been gone for three months; that afternoon, Dad works in the garden, never looking up to the sky. That night they all sit on the mechanical porch, and Dad looks up at the sky for the first time that day. Douglas knows the routine: the first night, Dad wouldn't look too much into the sky, the second night, he'd pay more attention to the sky; and by the third, he'd stay up later than Mom and Doug from staring skywards, finally being called to bed. The next morning he'd have his uniform case ready, his mother sleeping in late, and tell Douglas he'll see him in three months. But on this first night, Mother isn't very worried. Dad suggests they all go to the television carnival; there, Doug unthinkingly asks his father what it's like in outer space. Dad is at first enthusiastic about space but catches himself and tries to make it sound like no big deal; Doug points out he always returns to space, but Dad says he may not this time. When they return home, Doug asks to see Dad in his uniform, something he'd yet to see; when Dad relents and goes upstairs to change, Mother expresses her anger at Doug. When Dad is in space, Mother acts as if he doesn't exist; when Doug once tried to mow the lawn or do other household chores, she told him to wait until Dad returned. Dad comes back downstairs, and shows his uniform to his family; Mother tells him twice to turn around in it.
The next morning, Dad buys tickets for a trip to California and Mexico. Sunning themselves in California, Dad and Doug have a long talk. It ends with Dad warning Doug to never be a Rocket Man, to not let it get a hold of him. At dinner that night, Mom makes Thanksgiving dinner, even though it's August; she says it's because he wouldn't be around at Thanksgiving. Smelling the food, Dad is about to tell her he'll stay home - but a passing helicopter brings his attention to the window, to the stars and Mars rising in the East. Instead, he merely asks for peas and Mother runs to the kitchen, upset.
Doug couldn't sleep that night and goes down to the porch at one AM, where his Dad is sitting. He asks Dad how people can die in space; Dad says there are millions of ways and the body is never recovered, but at least it's a quick death. The next morning, Dad leaves home with his uniform in its box under his arm, promising to come home to stay when he returns from this trip. After he leaves, Doug talks with his mother: she finally explains that when Dad first left for space ten years ago, she decided to treat him as dead, that it was easier to think of him that way and welcome his returns the way a person would treat a pleasant dream or memory. When asked about his promise to settle down, she assures Doug that he is dead and wonders what would happen when he dies and they can not face the planet that caused his death. The next day, the message arrives that Dad died when his ship feel into the sun. For a long time after, both Doug and his mother avoided the sun completely, changing their lives to reflect this avoidance.
Lily is called Mother by the narrator for most of the story, indicating some level of emotional distance. The father is called Dad throughout, showing how much more Doug identifies with him. Lily is called Mom only when the Thanksgiving dinner seems ready to sway the father into staying on Earth permanently - when the plan fails, she becomes Mother again.