The Strange Short Flight of Flat Earth Rocket Man
One part conspiracy theorist, one part daredevil, and 100-percent homegrown chutzpah.
In case you hadn't heard, "Mad" Mike Hughes, the by-now infamous Flat Earth Rocket Man, has finally blasted himself into low orbit in a rocket he built himself. Ok, he actually just shot about 1,800 feet straight into the air and landed, hard, with the aid of two parachutes, one of which deployed a little later than it should have. Fortunately—in fact, miraculously—he didn't kill himself, even though that height would have been more than enough to do the job.
The big question he was asking, the one he was trying to answer—Is the Earth flat?—remains in his mind, unresolved, a frustrating, tantalizing riddle.
"Whoever started that rumor that I was going to prove the Earth was flat is an idiot," he said in a phone call the week after his flight. He suggested that it may have been a reporter from the Washington Post who planted the seed, but that Jeff Bezos was likely behind the rumor-spreading. We'll never know for sure. What we do know is that dreams—no matter how far-fetched or ill-advised—can come true. A 61-year-old limousine driver who makes $15 an hour ferrying people around California's high desert communities can hurl himself into the sky from an RV-based launcher in a steam-powered rocket. It's a feat that's nothing if not unique.
"I'm the first private individual to launch from a mobile rocket launcher, and I think it solidified me as the world's greatest daredevil in history," Hughes said. "If anyone's done anything cooler than that, I'd like to see it."
The whole stunt seemed unlikely from the start. Hughes has never worked for NASA and has no formal training in aerospace technology. He's not an engineer, although years ago, he did turn wrenches in the pits at NASCAR races and knows a thing or two about welding and fabrication. Despite his lack of scientific and technical know-how—and some problems with the federal government regarding land use—he managed to design and build his own rocket, along with a mobile rocket launcher attached to an old RV he bought off of Craigslist for $1,500. He launched himself 1,300 feet in a steam-powered rocket a few years ago—nearly killing himself in an even harder landing—but this was to be his biggest launch to date, and a springboard into a grand project he hopes to undertake in the future: propelling himself to the edge of space using a hot air balloon and a small rocket.
But first, he needed to get off the ground in Amboy, California, the picturesque California ghost town on old Route 66 he had chosen for his most recent launch. With the blessing of Albert Okura—the eccentric Juan Pollo chicken restaurant chain owner who purchased Amboy wholesale in 2005 for $425,000—Hughes planned to do the launch on private property to avoid having to purchase insurance and other safety provisions that federal land use required, but would have made the cost of the project prohibitive.
Originally scheduled the Saturday after Thanksgiving, the launch was scrubbed when the federal Bureau of Land Management, which Hughes said had initially been supportive of his launch, told him he wasn't permitted to fly over federal land. Hughes and his landlord and sometime collaborator, Waldo E. Stakes, had spent several days setting up the rickety-looking scaffolding that supported the launch ramp when the feds arrived with the no-fly order. That and a host of other problems—the RV overheated and wouldn't start, a couple of the welds in the scaffolding broke, his four cats, still at his house back in Apple Valley, needed to be fed—delayed the launch date by a few months. But not before Hughes said BLM officials told him he could move his mobile (but not easy-to-move) launcher a few yards away, and after he'd set it up, changed their minds again.
There are many variables involved in sending a manned rocket any distance off the Earth's surface (Hughes made it a third of a mile). In the case of a steam-powered rocket, the water has to be heated to the right temperature to create the pressure needed for thrust. You need a lot of water, which if you've forgotten it (Hughes didn't have nearly enough during that first launch attempt in November) can be difficult to find in the middle of the desert. There are things like windows and levers and bolt angles that work (or don't) in ways that couldn't have been anticipated. As you can imagine, amateur rocketry is very much a trial and error sort of thing. Just ask the amateur rocketeers who lobbed a rocket 73 miles into space. Of course, their craft was unmanned, so mistakes meant a trashed rocket, probably not much else. Hughes had a lot riding on the line. His life, for starters.
During his last steam rocket launch, near Winkelman, Ariz., in 2014, Hughes said he had installed the cockpit's window way up in the rocket's nose cone. When he accidentally pulled the launch lever before he was completely strapped in, he found that he couldn't see very well out of the distant window, and couldn't tell where he was relative to the ground.
"I was five feet in the air before I knew what was going on," he recalled.
Thinking he was farther along in the flight path than he was, he pulled his parachute release too early, and the 'chute was damaged by the steam still spewing out of the thrust nozzle. Full of holes, it didn't slow the rocket as much as it should have and he landed hard. The YouTube video of that launch shows Hughes being pulled from the cockpit groaning.
This time, though, failure was not an option in his mind, though he didn't seem to mind the possibility that he might die trying.
"It's a dance with the devil, but I put on my big boy pants and did it," he said.
I first learned of Mad Mike Hughes the way many people did: a friend posted an article on my Facebook wall about the flat earth rocket man, along with a humorous comment. "How about this for the next installment of “The Build” LOLOL."
My amusement over the idea that someone was trying to prove the Earth flat faded after a cursory Google search revealed the vastness of the flat Earth conspiracy theory. When I commented about it on social media, it was really more of a rhetorical "WTF?!" than anything else. But I was surprised to learn that people I had known for years bought into the theory, basing their belief mostly upon—from what I could tell—a handful of YouTube videos that set big "What if?" hypotheses to flashy visuals and eerie music. So much for centuries of scientific research and discovery, I thought to myself.
The bottom line is that along with the vastly expanded access to information the Internet has made possible, it has, in a single generation, given a giant megaphone to all the kooks who at one time occupied the outer edges of society's uneducated, but eager-to-learn rabble. Admittedly, my own education and career choice (regardless of the six years I logged doing thankless blue collar jobs when I entered the workforce) put me squarely in the ivory tower elite camp that anyone critical or mistrustful of the institutions that made that possible are so quick to discredit. Still, the idea that people can glean information from dubious Internet sources without questioning it, then turn around and lash out at the veracity of centuries of academic pursuit, makes zero sense. Still, I'm intrigued by the passion that goes into some of the projects that result in this You can't tell me how to think! logic.
There was little about Mad Mike's upcoming rocket launch that made me think he actually believed—or even suspected—the Earth was flat. It seemed more likely that he'd found a good way to stir controversy and drum up publicity and funding for his upcoming stunt. I probably wouldn't have given his steam rocket a second thought, but another friend shot me a text one day, not long before Thanksgiving: "Ever see a man die?" He was referring to Hughes' upcoming launch in the California desert. Having just completed (and won) another of those idiotic races (which are, in a way, not at all unlike hucking oneself into the sky in a homemade rocket), I was cooling my heels on the coast, waiting for the energy to make the drive back east.
What the hell, I thought. Launching oneself hundreds of feet into the air may sound crazy within the context of today's insurance and regulation-saturated culture, but there was a time—only a few generations back—when seat-of-the-pants daredevil stunts were all the rage. Well beyond morbid curiosity, I wanted to see if the guy could actually do something cool, independent of institutional help.
Taking leave of the coast, I pointed my car inland toward Amboy, an empty town situated on empty land. Three miles from that cluster of mostly abandoned (except for the gas station, which still sells fuel for more than $5 a gallon) buildings that stand as a relic of pre-Interstate highway travel, I found Hughes and Stakes setting up the launch ramp beneath a warm winter sun. Throughout the day, people came and went, interested to see this man they'd heard about through newspaper websites and social media postings.
The American desert has always attracted all manner of adventurers and dreamers. It has also attracted lost souls seeking an escape from the crush of a fast-moving, often oppressive society, and serves as the perfect backdrop for the improbable. "The desert doesn't care who you are or what you do. In the desert, there are plenty of people known by occupation or passions or last known location," Deanne Stillman, author of two desert-based true crime books, told Psycology Today in 2012. The desert is pure madness, where people have gone to race motorcycles, set speed records in rocket cars, chase UFOs and explode nuclear weapons. In the desert, anything is possible.
Mad Mike Hughes may be a limo driver by trade, but he has been doing the daredevil thing for some time. Back in 2002, using his limo driver credentials as a platform, he jumped a 1989 Lincoln Town Car limousine 103 feet into a pile of junked cars on the other side of a ramp he built himself. He set a record... for limousine jumps.
"I broke my back in two places on that one—heard my vertebrae snap," he said.
Hughes says he caught the daredevil bug early in life, and remembers watching the Joie Chitwood Thrill Show at the racetrack when he was growing up near Oklahoma City in the early Sixties. Hughes also took note of Evel Knievel's attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon in a steam-powered rocket in 1974, and Kenny Powers' attempt to jump the St. Lawrence Seaway in a rocket-powered Lincoln Continental. Both stunts—which were backed by major investors—ended in failure, but the daredevils walked away from nearly catastrophic wrecks. They left their mark upon Hughes, who still considers Powers one of the greatest daredevils of all time.
Back in the Seventies, while Knievel and Powers were attracting huge crowds for stunt attempts that still linger in our collective memory, Hughes was racing motorcycles on flat tracks near home. In the Eighties, he started working on NASCAR pit crews, and traveled the race circuit for years before calling it quits in the early Nineties. He drove limousines in Las Vegas for a few years before moving out to Apple Valley, which he figured was the cheapest place he could live while dedicating time and resources to his passion. But where Hughes' heroes had the support afforded by well-established stuntman careers—Knieval scouted the location for the Snake River Canyon jump in a helicopter and Kenny Powers spent about $1 million setting up his failed jump—his own operation was, shall we say, much more grass roots.
When I arrived at his launch site outside Amboy in November, Hughes wore a pair of baggy jeans and an untucked, oversized flannel shirt. His garments had the desert floor's dust ground into them. His face was sweaty and his hair disheveled from the work he and his friend, landlord and de-facto promoter, Waldo E. Stakes, had been doing to set up the rocket launch ramp. One moment he was fastening bolts on a square stock crossmember with a ratchet, the next he was on his hands and knees in the dirt, digging a hole with his hands to make room for one of the rocket's fins. He had already been at it for days, and it didn't look like he was going to have everything set up in time for his scheduled launch that afternoon.
Would-be spectators came and went, but the crowd never swelled above a couple dozen people at any given time. Most cars and trucks traveling the Mother Road—many of them loaded down with dirt bikes, ATVs and camping equipment—whooshed by on their way to other, more pressing activities. The few who stopped seemed generally interested, even supportive of Hughes' project.
"We don't see this kind of shit out here," a woman clutching a Baroque-styled vape pen rasped as she exhaled a cloud of fruity-smelling steam. She said she was local, but withheld her name, citing distrust of the media. "Don't die! We want to see more of this."
Mark Drummond, a Twentynine Palms resident who once served as chancellor of the California community college system, looked on, bemused. He had travelled to Idaho in 1974 to watch Evel Knievel's Snake River Canyon jump. He recalled it as a wild party, with Knievel doing wheelies through the sprawling camp. According to a contemporary account by the Stanford Daily, his memory served correctly.
Along the campsites surrounding the canyon the Hell's Angels raided the refreshment trailers and it was free beer for all. They mounted their trusty pieces of machinery and jumped the outhouses, later burning them for night-lights. The young security guards with double-barreled shot guns and southern drawls were as far gone as everyone else, so the booze and cocaine got around and the hoopla never ceased. No one in Twin Falls slept Saturday night, and Sunday was a long hot day of waiting. "I'm cookin' man, just cookin' and lovin' it up," were the words of the fella cramped along the front-row fence.
That was 9 a.m.
All morning the helicopters flew in the ABC cameramen and the Steve McQueen-type celebrities, stirring up dust and blowing it into the crowd. The sweat poured from tired bodies to the beer-drenched ground and at $25 a head it was expensive perspiration. At 2:30 p.m. the final helicopter brought in Knievel himself, draped in a red-white-and-blue jump suit, just like Old Glory. The voice over the loud-speaker asked everyone to "stay cool" but at 90 degrees it wasn't easy. People in the back were edging forward to catch a better glimpse. The chants began: "Rush the fence, rush the fence." The loud-speaker voice again urged everyone to "stay together." That they did.
"The jump was anticlimactic," Drummond said. "I see this as more of a, 'Hey, look over here!' kind of thing. I wouldn't bet that he'll survive falling on his head in this rocket."
There was no cocaine-fueled party surrounding Hughes' home-brewed stunt. Only a train-hopping graffiti artist and his friend, sipping cans of beer from a 12-pack they'd picked up on their way out of civilization. Steve Tygart, a Twentynine Palms resident, didn't buy the flat earth theory that—other than the words printed on the side of the rocket—seemed to be a mere side issue, but he thought the rocket launch was cool.
"Personally, I think the guy's kind of a genius," he said. "I think it should be an inspiration to the younger kids to go to space and get into science."
But they'd all have to wait, and wait. Aside from the odd interruption—at one point, Hughes sat for an interview with a conspiracy theory website host who asked a lot of leading questions—Hughes and Stakes worked through the day. As the sun set and the last looky-loos hit the road, it was clear that the rocket wasn't going to fly that day, possibly even that week. Stakes, who wanted to sleep at home that night, drove the 112 miles back to Apple Valley, promising to return the next day with more water for the boiler. The RV was part of the launcher setup and was out of order anyway, so I drove Hughes to Amboy to charge his phone for a few minutes at the cafe there. Then I left, too, leaving Hughes alone beneath the starlit desert sky.
When I showed up again the next morning, he had been up since before dawn, still bolting on pieces from the interminable stack of launch ramp crossmembers piled next to the RV. A BLM ranger showed up and looked on. Hughes—who had told me during my flat earth line of questioning that he didn't believe our last president was an American citizen, and that he didn't think our government was legitimate—extended a friendly greeting to the government agent. The ranger told me that Hughes' barebones approach—no insurance, no safety crew, no permits of any type—wouldn't work on federal land.
"When stuff like this happens on BLM land, you start having to get into permits and sanitary conditions and crowd control and bleechers," he said. "It's a big deal."
Hughes had another launch planned for Superbowl weekend, but had to scrub that one, too. His shoestring budget was partially crowdsource funded, so there was, understandably, some blowback on social media. But after re-painting his rocket green and white and finding a way around the BLM no-fly zone by launching straight into the air, Hughes and Stakes finally made it happen.
"I wish he would have thrown his second chute a little earlier, but he didn't want to drift outside the landing area," Stakes said, adding that BLM rangers watched the whole thing from a parked truck atop a nearby ridge. "We had a pow-wow with them and they said if we landed on federal property, they'd take us away in handcuffs."
Hughes has since been laid off from his limo driver job, but says he's been pretty busy planning his balloon launch to the edge of space and working to sue Governor Jerry Brown, who he thinks should be hanged, over taxes. He said he's running for governor himself, but since his name doesn't appear among the candidates scheduled to run in the state's primary on June 5, it's likely his political career is, like his purported belief in the flat Earth theory, a ploy to draw attention to his next wild stunt.
His wide-ranging hunger for conspiracy stories aside, Hughes is, at his core, a daredevil. Though he may look to corporate-backed heroes like Evel Knievel and Baumgartner as his inspiration, his footsteps more closely follow those of grassroots adventurers like tragic Nick Piantanida. We can only hope he doesn't suffer the same fate if he's able to raise the $2.8 million he says he needs to fund his own space jump. His plan calls for a balloon to carry him 25 miles above the Earth's surface and a small rocket to pull him the next 37 miles to the Karman Line, which is regarded by physicists as the boundary between Earth's atmosphere and outer space. Hughes says he and Stakes have roughed out a flight plan and are beginning to round up parts. Stakes estimated the cost of parts at $1.8 million and engineering at $1 million.
"We need map and computer skills to make this happen," he said. "This is real science this time. It's not a steam rocket."
What does a guy like Mad Mike Hughes mean within today's cultural context? Here he is, a guy who echoes the whackiest anti-establishment talking points to be found on the Internet.
"Everything we've been taught in life is a lie, from Kennedy to the Constitution," he told me after his successful launch. "We're not a country, we're a corporation. We're living in a real-life Truman Show."
But he also possesses, in spades, that old-fashioned American value: if you work hard and never take no for an answer, anything is possible. It's not the 1930s, when someone doing crazy things in a motor vehicle would have been new and exciting. Nor is it the Seventies, when every crazy event was attended by a raucous party. People are reserved now in a way that they never were before. A guy like Hughes—indefatigable, affable, slightly unhinged—might be the perfect one-man microcosm of America's current psyche. If not that, he's certainly a walking metaphor for the desert mentality, which is really what has tugged America in whatever direction it was headed all along.
But Hughes sees everything in much simpler terms.
"We live in a world that no matter what you do, someone's gonna say something bad about it," he said. "This thing is supposed to inspire people, that you can do something with your own imagination and your own hands."