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What daredevil ‘Mad’ Mike’s fatal rocket launch had to do with promoting a flat Earth

 
“Mad” Mike Hughes, aged 64, died February 22 when his home-made steam-powered rocket crashed into the desert near Barstow, California. A video shot for an intended television show “Homemade Astronauts” to be aired on Discovery, Inc.’s Science Channel shows that the parachute which was supposed to brake the descent deployed prematurely and was torn off during the launch.

Hughes was experienced in daredevil stunts before he began specializing in homemade rocketry. His 2002 Guinness World Record for longest limousine jump, 103 feet in a Lincoln Town Car, still stands. His initial interest was in completing a stunt like Evel Knievel’s 1974 attempt to jump Snake River Canyon. Knievel usually jumped with motorcycles, but this was not an adequate vehicle for jumping a canyon (Knievel originally had the Grand Canyon in mind, but the National Park Service vetoed the idea). A steam-powered rocket was designed, built, and tested repeatedly at an estimated cost of $600,000 but during the stunt, the parachute deployed during the launch.

As a result of the extra drag, the rocket barely touched the far end of the canyon before the wind pushed it back into the gorge. However, unlike in the accident that killed Hughes last Saturday, the parachute remained attached to the rocket, although it was designed to pull the cockpit with the pilot loose in case of emergency. Knievel survived the plunge to the bottom with little injury. For the rest of his life he wanted to try it again, but the promoters, including such figures as Vincent McMahon of World Wrestling Entertainment, had not made their expenses back. After his death in 2007 many daredevils wanted to do a canyon jump in his honor. Evel’s son Robbie Knievel in 1999 had jumped 228 feet over a minor branch of the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle, but the real challenge was a wide canyon needing a rocket like Evel’s. Stuntman Eddie Braun succeeded in jumping the Snake River in September 2016, in a rocket built with cooperation from Robbie and the son of the designer of Evel’s rocket.

Mike Hughes was among those who failed. His May 2016 attempt was at the Palo Duro Canyon in the Texas Panhandle where he charged only $10 a head to watch, and had to refund it all when he failed to achieve enough steam pressure to launch. He was mocked on social media and pleaded that, as a mere limo driver, he did not have the kind of funds the Knievels had been able to raise.

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He said he had only given the rocket a full-fledged test once, in 2014 near Winkleman, Arizona. On that occasion, according to him, the parachute proved inadequate, and although he had a second backup parachute, the rocket landed hard, with enough damage that it took a long time to rebuild. As for himself, he needed to use a walker for two weeks to recover. But the video his friend took of the 1374-foot flight did not show Hughes climbing in or getting out, and some accused him of not actually having flown in the rocket at all. His cantankerous responses to trolling only served to encourage more hecklers to bait him.

His attempt to raise $7,500 for another record launch raised only $310 and a lot of questions about why he was bothering, after Braun had beaten him to the canyon jump.
So he disclosed another motive for his rocketry. He had become interested in 9/11 “truther” videos, and the YouTube algorithms led him to Flat Earth videos. He thought skepticism about whether the Earth is round was well-founded, since he had been to Kansas, where he could see a long way and it looks perfectly flat. Some claim to be able to perceive the curvature of the Earth looking down from an airplane, but the cruising altitude of a commercial plane is less than 1/600 the radius of the Earth, so that the effect would be very subtle and almost impossible to discern without a wider field of view than an airplane window affords, and those who think they are seeing the curve are mostly influenced by the fish-eye-lens effect the thick glass can have. From space, of course the curvature is unmistakable, but at this point the conspiracy theorists’ natural distrust of government kicks in, and all pictures coming from NASA are dismissed as forgeries. But what if, Hughes proposed, someone unconnected to government could build a rocket and get to space?

Flat Earthers were enthusiastic and quickly raised the money he was asking for. The Bureau of Land Management was much less excited: they would rather have known of his 2014 launch in advance, and wanted to coordinate with the FAA, and check whether he might hit ecologically sensitive areas. Hughes postponed scheduled launch attempts in November and December 2017 to try to get permission, then made an arrangement with the owner of a ghost town, Amboy, California, restructuring his ramp to be more vertical so that he would come back down within the private land. He live-streamed an attempted launch February 3, 2018 and had to scrub, due to insufficient steam pressure as at the canyon jump. This drew more mockery, with accusations that he had chickened out. Finally on March 24 he had a successful launch and only banged himself up a little on the landing: “I’ll feel it in the morning. I won’t be able to get out of bed. At least I can go home and have dinner and see my cats tonight.”

The maximum height of 1875 feet was only a small fraction of an airplane’s cruising altitude, and everyone agreed airplane height is too little to determine whether curvature is really visible. Online hecklers chided him that this was no way to prove the Earth is flat. He insisted that he was open-minded about the question, and truly wanted to gather evidence: “Do I believe the Earth is shaped like a Frisbee? I believe it is. Do I know for sure? No. That’s why I want to go up in space.” His plan was to build a “Rockoon” as he called it, a rocket lightweight enough to be carried up to the stratosphere in a balloon and powerful enough to launch upward from there. Now that he finally had proof of concept, more or less, he could raise funds to build an improved design and get closer to a rocket that would fulfill the needs of the Rockoon project.

The new improved model is what he tried on Saturday. As he put it in 2018, “This thing wants to kill you 10 different ways. This thing will kill you in a heartbeat.”

 
Robert Eckert is a longtime member of the Underground Bunker community and author of the historical novel The Year of Five Emperors.

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