On Saturday, February 22nd, Mad Mike Hughes, limousine driver, daredevil, and rocketeer died in the cockpit of his homemade rocket. He leaves behind two cats, a garage full of used parts, and an unmarked crater in the California desert. He was 64.
Mad Mike died in his quest to prove that the world is flat. As a self-proclaimed Flat Earther conspiracy theorist, Mike Hughes dreamed of piloting a rocket to the Kármán line, a point 62 miles above the earth’s surface, where the atmosphere gives way to the nothingness of space, to verify for himself that the earth is nothing but a giant frisbee.
Given that his homemade rocket crashed on a barren plane which stretches without dip from horizon to horizon in Barstow, California, I think he indeed proved that the earth is flat.
I am not big on conspiracy theories, especially ones that involve vast government cover ups. I don’t think government agencies have the proficiency to keep a secret. So, as intriguing as it is to consider that NASA staged the lunar landing, and alien spacecraft are being warehoused by the Air Force in Area 51, and birds are really drones propagated by the CIA, I happily hold on to commonly accepted truths even if I can’t actually prove them myself.
Call me an earthbound lemming.
But once in eighth grade I participated in a school debate and suffered a humiliating loss. I had to argue that the world was round. It turns out there are a lot of authoritative texts written prior to the middle ages that hold an opposing point of view, particularly when presented by a persuasive debater.
Not wanting to admit that my scientific debating skills are deficient, it gives me some joy to contemplate that perhaps the world really is flat.
As a result, Flat Earthers hold a special place in my imagination. They believe the earth is really a disc with the arctic at its center and a wall of ice at the perimeter guarded by NASA to keep truth seekers from climbing over and disappearing forever from the face of the earth. Anyone who has invested too many hours watching Game of Thrones will recognize the wisdom in this thinking.
In truth, Mad Mike used his Flat Earther status as a publicity stunt to raise money for his real goal, which was to build and fly a rocket. He quickly discovered his fund raising efforts could be much more productive if he came off as a complete crackpot rather than some obscure daredevil with a few loose O rings. After raising a measly $300 dollars toward his first launch attempt, he upped his funds twenty fold once he slapped a Flat Earth sticker on the side of the DIY missile he was welding in his garage and announced to the world that he was out to verify first hand that it was flat.
But even at $7,900, he was still short $2 million.
Undeterred by naysayers and stingy donors, in 2018 Mad Mike managed to build a rocket and launch himself 1,900 feet into the air before T-boning Nevada at 60 mph with a parachute. If not for the stretcher which carried him to an ambulance, he would have walked away.
As a point of reference, this under-publicized achievement occurred shortly after Elon Musk successfully launched a $100,000 Tesla into outer space atop a SpaceX Falcon heavy rocket.
Crackpot? Consider this. One hundred years ago Robert Goddard, rocket pioneer and namesake for NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, was mocked by the venerable NY Times for his proclamation that one day man would go into space atop an exploding, liquid-propelled rocket.
The only difference between Robert Goddard and Mad Mike is that Goddard was smart enough to stay behind. I am also pretty sure Goddard considered the earth to be round.
Goddard’s first rocket in 1926 escaped the ground for 2 seconds and reached an altitude of 41 feet. In 2002, Mad Mike propelled his Lincoln Town Car stretch limousine off a ramp two and a half times that distance earning him a coveted place in the Guinness Book of World Records somewhere next to Evil Knievel.
So why wouldn’t Mad Mike believe he could shoot himself into space atop a rocket he built himself?
I admire conviction. Even if it is misguided. Because for every crackpot jumping off a cliff with homemade bird wings believing he can fly, there are a couple of Wright Brothers around to actually make it happen. Even in the face of formidable laughter.
Just as in the face of every laughable conspiracy theory, there are men and women of conviction willing to dedicate their lives to what they believe to be true.
Conviction is the rocket fuel that propels humanity forward.
Godspeed, Mad Mike.