Death of a rocket man

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If there was one thing that irked “Mad” Mike Hughes during his very public pursuit of the theory that Earth is flat, it was the sheer gullibility of those who believed otherwise.

Toiling away in his garage in the high desert of California, welding leftover parts that he bought off Craigslist into rockets on which to strap himself, using the roof of a run-down camper van as his launch pad, the self-styled “world’s top daredevil” never wavered from his ambition to soar aloft and gaze down upon his Frisbee-shaped planet.

“My team and myself is going to accomplish the greatest thing in the history of mankind. It’s going to change the world,” he told producers for a 2019 documentary. “I believe in the geocentric flat Earth model. I’m not going to take anyone else’s word for it; I’m going to build my own rocket right here and I’m going to see with my own eyes what shape is this world we live on.”

Hughes would occasionally dip into social media to accept plaudits from his fans and respond to those who mocked him with memes of ships sailing off the edge of a flat Earth and taunts such as: “The only thing to fear is sphere itself.”

“We don’t ask people to believe the flat Earth theory, just that they research it. Research what your city council is doing, what your Congress is doing . . . We’re not asking you to believe in anything. Believe in Santa Claus, I don’t give a shit. Just research things,” he urged, after blasting to an altitude of 570m above the Mojave Desert in 2018 on his rocket Liberty One.

On his first launch in 2014 Hughes cracked a vertebra and needed a Zimmer frame for a fortnight to help him to walk, but admitted that without the big budgets of Nasa and SpaceX, he was just glad to be alive. Before the 2018 launch he left out extra food for his four pet cats in case he did not survive.

He recalled his climb to the rocket: “I’m thinking, ‘Am I walking up to the gallows where I am going to hang myself?’ I was asking myself if this was the last thing I was going to do . . . I John Wayne’d it. I’m a real guy. I put on my big-boy pants and I man up and I do things and I will roll the dice. Very few people will roll the dice with their lives. I play Russian roulette.”

The last roll of the dice for the former $15-an-hour Las Vegas limousine driver came on Saturday. As his homemade, steam-powered rocket screeched skywards on a mission intended to carry him to 1.5km above the Californian desert, the parachute on which the ship was to have descended tore off and fluttered to the ground, leaving him at the mercy of gravity.

A video shows the $18,000 rocket plummeting nose-first to the ground and hitting the desert floor in a plume of dust. The stunt was being filmed for Homemade Astronauts, a documentary chronicling the efforts of those who seek to explore the final frontier on limited budgets.

Michael Hughes was born in 1956. From the age of two months he would watch his father compete on the car racing circuit and at the age of 12 began racing motorcycles, turning professional in 1974. His formative years at school seem not to have made their mark. “We are all thrown into a public [state] school system and taught only the topics they choose . . . all of this before any of us could critically think about anything,” he said. “Once I came to the realisation everything is a lie, then it is easier to research and understand that the shape of this rock may indeed be different from what we have been programmed and indoctrinated into believing.”

The white-haired, gently spoken adventurer shared little about his personal life and cultivated a persona as an eccentric thrillseeker. He had children, his publicist said, “but I don’t know how much they communicated. I don’t think a lot.” Before taking up limousine driving in 1996, Hughes worked as a Nascar crew chief, a career that allowed him to indulge his love of engineering. In 2002, seeking to do something more thrilling in a three-tonne Lincoln Town Car than chauffeur high-rollers around Sin City, he set a record for the longest limousine jump — more than 31m — at a race track in Perris, California. He dreamt of surpassing the stunt supremo Evel Knievel.

“I want to validate that I’m the greatest daredevil in daredevil history,” he said in 2015 as he prepared to torpedo himself across the St Lawrence River, strapped to what he billed as “the world’s most powerful pop-bottle rocket” and powered by steam pressure. The stunt never happened.

This DIY astronaut lived for the last 15 years of his life in a rustic home named Rocket Ranch in rural Apple Valley, California, with his engineering partner Waldo Stakes. “It’s just an inexpensive place for me to live . . . I like live entertainment . . . but I can’t live anywhere cheaper,” he said.

He kept himself financially afloat by selling autographed photos for $15 and seeking sponsors, among them HUD, a New Zealand dating app, which last year backed his rocket with the slogan: “Dating isn’t rocket science.” Those launch plans were thwarted by bad weather, a faulty water heater on board the rocket, and Hughes’s collapse from heat exhaustion.

He had once pondered: “What do I do if shit goes south . . . I mean, do you leave a letter or something?” But he left only one final text for his publicist on Friday night, asking if many representatives of the media were coming to his launch. Only one did.

“If you’re not scared to death, you’re an idiot,” he once told the Associated Press. “It’s scary as hell, but none of us are getting out of this world alive.”

“Mad” Mike Hughes, daredevil pilot, was born on February 9, 1956. He died in a rocket crash on February 22, 2020, aged 64

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