It’s a March afternoon in California’s Mojave Desert, and “Mad” Mike Hughes is preparing his homemade rocket for launch. Suddenly, the contraption kicks into gear, and Hughes is sent hurtling thousands of feet into the air. Before his unlikely adventure, this eccentric inventor believed that the world was flat – but will his flight above the Earth have changed his mind?
Contrary to popular belief, most people did not believe that the Earth was flat before Christopher Columbus proved them wrong. In fact, scholars have theorized that we inhabit a spherical planet since at least the time of the ancient Greeks. And by the time that Columbus set sail around the world, only the least educated of society would have entertained the idea that he might fall off the edge.
However, that hasn’t stopped a growing number of modern enthusiasts becoming obsessed with the idea of a flat Earth. Beginning somewhere around the mid-20th century, a movement of people began rejecting the notion of a spherical world. Instead, they chose to believe that our planet is shaped like a disc.
And despite the obvious ways of disproving such a theory, such as gravity and satellite photos taken from space, the flat Earth movement has refused to go away. Instead, buoyed by social media and the public credulity of the fake news era, the idea has gained more traction than ever before.
Today, one of the poster boys of the flat Earth movement is “Mad” Mike Hughes, an American limousine driver who moonlights as a daredevil in his spare time. A resident of California, Hughes has been making headlines since 2002, when he set a world record for clearing a 103-foot jump in a Lincoln Town Car limousine.
Not content with earthbound feats, Hughes soon turned his attention to rocketry. In fact, in January 2014, he allegedly rode a homemade projectile some 1,374 in the air. However, no footage was taken of the event, and skeptics have cast doubt on whether or not it actually took place.
By 2016, Hughes was trying to raise funds for a second rocket launch. But this time, he had an ax to grind. At some point that year, he became converted to flat Earth beliefs. And while cynics were quick to draw a link between Hughes’ dwindling funds and his new allegiance to the cause, the inventor hoped that his mission would shed some light on the debate.
Now funded by a research group dedicated to flat Earth theory, Hughes began formulating plans to launch a homemade rocket into the skies above California. Apparently, his plan was to reach a point high enough for him to gather evidence relating to the Earth’s true nature. However, he had some hurdles to overcome first.
Apparently, Hughes first challenge was to find a suitable launch site. Eventually, he settled on Amboy, a mostly abandoned Californian community located on Route 66 in the Mojave Desert. Back in 2005, entrepreneur Albert Okura bought the entire town for $435,000. And with Okura’s permission, Hughes was able to go ahead with his baffling project.
However, the authorities were not convinced. Although Hughes’ rocket was originally scheduled to launch in November 2017, concerns from the Bureau of Land Management about logistical and mechanical problems pushed the date back. Undaunted, Hughes went back to the drawing board.
This time, Hughes converted an old camper into a launching pad for his rocket – complete with a vertical angle to prevent his contraption from crashing down on public land. And unbelievably, the objections faded away. But as he prepared to jet off into the atmosphere, Hughes faced a barrage of criticism from those on the more traditional end of the scientific spectrum.
However, Hughes was quick to cast such doubters aside. “Do I believe that the Earth is shaped like a Frisbee? I believe it is,” he is reported to have said. “Do I know for sure? No. That’s why I want to go up in space.” But by the time that the next launch date came around, it seemed as if his hopes would be dashed once more.
Apparently, the steam-driven rocket ideally required a pressure build up of 350 pounds per square inch to launch. However, when Hughes was getting ready for lift off on March 24, 2018, the level dropped to about 340. Nevertheless, he decided to push on, with a camera crew from NoiZe TV on hand to capture his efforts.
As the two presenters joked around on camera, Hughes’ assistants could be seen readying the homemade craft in the background. Then, just after 3:00 p.m., the rocket took off – without so much as a countdown to prepare the startled observers. And soon, Hughes and his rocket were propelled some 1,875 feet above the surface of the Earth.
According to Hughes’ assistant Waldo Stakes, the rocket reached speeds of about 350 mph. Then, Hughes deployed his parachute and began plummeting back to earth. However, he wasn’t out of the woods yet. After falling too quickly, he was forced to pull a second chute. Eventually, he landed with a bump while the rocket broke into two at the nose – just as it had been designed to.
Although he injured his back in the fall, Hughes miraculously survived his ill-advised endeavor. And after being checked over by medical professionals, he claimed to be relieved that he had seen the plan through. “I’m tired of people saying I chickened out and didn’t build a rocket,” he is reported to have said to the Associated Press. “I’m tired of that stuff. I manned up and did it.”
But did Hughes’ flight confirm or deny his beliefs about the flat Earth? Perhaps unsurprisingly, he has not commented on what kind of view he experienced from more than 1,800 feet in the air. However, he has talked about his upcoming plans for a rocket that would take him some 68 miles up.
At this height, Hughes would far surpass the 35,000 feet necessary to see the Earth’s curvature with the naked eye. However, some critics have pointed out that there are far safer ways for curious observers to check out the shape of the planet for themselves – such as attaching a camera to a balloon capable of traveling high into the atmosphere.
In fact, most people believe that you don’t even need to leave the Earth to see that it is spherical. For instance, if the world was flat, high points such as Mount Everest should be visible to anyone with a high-powered telescope. Of course, they are not – but facts like this haven’t stopped people such as Hughes from grabbing the headlines with their improbable beliefs.
And now that he has succeeded in launching his rocket, Hughes has another startling plan. Apparently, his next challenge is to enter the running to become governor of California – and he thinks that he might be in with a chance. “This is no joke,” he told the Los Angeles Times in March 2018. “I want to do it.” And if he approaches politics with the same determination as he does rocketry, then we might be seeing him in office yet.