Flat-Earth martyr or victim? ‘Mad’ Mike Hughes dies in DIY rocket crash

Self-styled daredevil “Mad” Mike Hughes has died after crashing his homemade rocket-balloon into the California desert while supposedly trying to prove that the Earth is flat.

It’s not.

Nevertheless, Hughes died chasing “proof” of a viral conspiracy theory he championed for years. The 64-year-old was the lone occupant of a steam-powered rocket that blasted off from the desert near Barstow, Calif., on Saturday afternoon, in a failed effort to fly high enough to photograph the “flat” planet.

Video recorded by freelance journalist Jason Chapman shows the rocket taking off with a hiss of steam, shedding a green parachute on its way up before disappearing into the clear blue sky.

A few seconds later the arrow-shaped rocket can be seen nose-diving back to Earth. It ultimately slams into the desert ground head-on, kicking up a cloud of dust in the process.

“Michael ‘Mad Mike’ Hughes tragically passed away today during an attempt to launch his homemade rocket,” the Discovery Channel said in a statement on Saturday. Discovery cameras were on-hand for the launch, which was slated to be part of an upcoming show called Homemade Astronauts. It’s unclear what will happen with that part of the show.

“A man was pronounced deceased after the rocket crashed in the open desert during a rocket launch event,” San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department said in a statement.

Hughes was a longtime stunt driver turned amateur rocket-builder and so-called “Flat Earther” — a term for supporters of a viral conspiracy theory that combines a stone-age worldview with the feverish internet speculation of the 21st century.

The Flat Earth theory goes like this: the world is flat (or maybe a pear-shaped object), and the sun is a burning ball that revolves around it. It’s not really a sphere orbiting a star and scientists, airlines and world leaders are conspiring to keep it all secret.

“I don’t know if the world is flat or round,” Hughes said in a video posted on BBC News’ website back in 2018.

“I don’t want to take anyone else’s word for it.”

Hughes’ plan was always simple: He wanted to launch himself 100 kilometres (62 miles) above the Earth, past the so-called Karman Line separating the Earth’s atmosphere from space. Hughes would take footage all the way up, in hopes of reaching space and obtaining photographic proof that the Earth is flat.

“It’ll shut the door on this ball Earth,” he said at the time.

Hughes made international headlines with his first public launch on March 24, 2018, after crowdfunding for the mission through the Flat Earther community. His steam engine-balloon hybrid carried him about 572 metres (1,875 feet) into the sky before making a hard landing in the Mojave Desert. Hughes survived the crash by deploying two parachutes, but he still injured his back in the landing.

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