Environment & Science

Man who thinks the earth is flat won't launch himself in a rocket he built in his own backyard

Mike Hughes stands beside his steam-powered rocket, which he built from salvaged parts.
Mike Hughes stands beside his steam-powered rocket, which he built from salvaged parts.
Waldo Stakes/AP

It appears we will need to wait a while longer to find out whether more than two millennia of thinkers and explorers — from Aristotle and Ferdinand Magellan, to Neil deGrasse Tyson and John Glenn — have been wrong about the shape of the Earth.

"Mad" Mike Hughes, limousine driver and self-proclaimed flat-Earther, announced that he had to delay his plan to launch himself 1,800 feet high in a rocket of his own making. The launch, which he has billed as a crucial first step toward ultimately photographing our disc-world from space, had been scheduled for Saturday — before the Bureau of Land Management got wind of the plan and barred him from using public land in Amboy, Calif.

Also, the rocket launcher he had built out of a used motor home "broke down in the driveway" on Wednesday, according to Hughes. He said in a YouTube announcement that they'd eventually gotten the launcher fixed — but the small matter of federal permission proved a more serious stumbling block (for now).

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The BLM "informed me that they were not going to allow me to do the event there — at least at that location," Hughes said.

Hughes asserted that the BLM last year had tacitly left the matter of permissions to the Federal Aviation Administration, and "of course, they can't honestly approve it," he added. The FAA "just said, 'Well, we know that you're going to do it there.'"

The blue sky over the Mojave Desert, untouched by the path of Mike Hughes' rocket. He had planned to launch himself in his own rocket Saturday in Amboy, Calif., but the Bureau of Land Management put up a significant hurdle to that effort.
The blue sky over the Mojave Desert, untouched by the path of Mike Hughes' rocket. He had planned to launch himself in his own rocket Saturday in Amboy, Calif., but the Bureau of Land Management put up a significant hurdle to that effort.
Susanna James/Flickr

It turns out the BLM wasn't satisfied with that explanation — particularly after The Associated Press first reported on the launch for a national audience.

"Someone from our local office reached out to him after seeing some of these news articles [about the launch], because that was news to them," a spokeswoman for the agency told The Washington Post, adding that Hughes had not applied to the local BLM field office for the necessary permit.

"So, it turned out to be not a good thing," Hughes said.

Amboy Crater is an extinct cinder cone volcano located along Route 66 in the Mojave Desert. Just east of Los Angeles, the Mojave Trails National Monument spans 1.6 million acres and includes mountain ranges, fossil beds and sand dunes.
Amboy Crater is an extinct cinder cone volcano located along Route 66 in the Mojave Desert. Just east of Los Angeles, the Mojave Trails National Monument spans 1.6 million acres and includes mountain ranges, fossil beds and sand dunes.
Bureau of Land Management / Flickr Creative Commons

Still, Hughes has not relented in his quest to launch himself roughly 500 mph on a mile-long flight across the sky above the Mojave Desert. He said he has found private property near his original launch site, where he anticipates finally taking off as early as this coming week.

For Hughes, this launch would not be his first in a homemade rocket. In 2014, the 61-year-old sent himself flying a quarter-mile across the Arizona desert before pulling out several parachutes of questionable quality on his fall to Earth. He was "in a walker for a couple weeks" after that launch, he told a flat-Earth community Web show.

He also hopes it will not be his last such attempt. Since converting to the flat-Earth belief after "research[ing] it for several months in between doing everything else," Hughes has seen a marked uptick in fundraising contributions to his rocket projects. And he has big plans, hoping eventually to launch himself into space, where he believes he can overturn a scientific understanding that predates NASA by at least 2,300 years.

Joshua Trees fill Mojave National Preserve, which has thousands of miles of dirt roads for off-highway vehicles.
Joshua Trees fill Mojave National Preserve, which has thousands of miles of dirt roads for off-highway vehicles.
Maya Sugarman/KPCC

"I don't believe in science," Hughes told the AP earlier this month. "I know about aerodynamics and fluid dynamics and how things move through the air, about the certain size of rocket nozzles, and thrust. But that's not science, that's just a formula. There's no difference between science and science fiction."

For now, his mission will have to wait.

"It's been very disappointing and, I guess, enlightening — this whole week. It really has been," he said. "But it's not easy because it's not supposed to be."

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