Former stuntman and flat-earth believer Michael ‘Mad Mike’ Hughes spent years trying to get as close to space as possible to see for himself if this planet is “shaped like a Frisbee.” That dream cost him his life Saturday when his homemade, steam-powered rocket had its parachute torn away during takeoff and nosedived about 5,000 feet to the desert floor near Barstow.
This was the 64-year-old daredevil’s third flight in his mission to eventually construct a rocket/balloon hybrid, or “rockoon,” to take him 62 miles up to the Karman Line that marks the edge of space. From there, Hughes hoped to learn the shape of the earth once and for all.
Though Hughes had previously survived two equally risky flights, this time his vessel struck a steel ladder attached to its launch ramp upon takeoff, spelling doom for the quixotic venture.
“It ripped off a parachute can, which deployed the parachute, which got caught in the thrust of the rocket and kind of took the rocket off course a little bit,” said Justin Chapman, a freelance journalist who was writing a profile of Hughes and witnessed the crash told NPR.
In a chilling video of the disaster, the empty parachute can be seen fluttering to earth as the rocket soars toward, then above the clouds, before exhausting its fuel and plummeting to the ground. One witness estimated that it crashed roughly a mile from its takeoff point.
“When the rocket was nose-diving and he didn’t release the three other parachutes he had in the rocket, lots of people screamed out and started wailing,” Chapman said. “Everyone was stunned when he crashed and didn’t know what to do.”
Hughes, who holds the Guinness Book of World Records title for his gravity-defying, 103-foot limo ramp jump in a stretch Lincoln Town Car, often pointed out that these early experiments were more about raising awareness, and funding, than about proving his theory.
“Do I believe the Earth is shaped like a Frisbee? I believe it is,” he said before a March 2018 launch that took him up 1,900 feet. “Do I know for sure? No. That’s why I want to go up in space.”
At that launch, he said he fully understood the risk he was taking. When a previous attempt failed to leave the ground, he recalled, “I considered beating on the rocket nozzle from the underneath side. But you can’t get anyone under there. It’ll kill you. It’ll scald you to death. It’ll blow the skin and muscle off your bones.”
Hughes further explained, “This thing wants to kill you ten different ways. This thing will kill you in a heartbeat.”
Though Hughes’ final flight was being documented by a Science Channel crew for a series on homemade astronauts, they wrote of him, “He was often lonely and felt his accomplishments as a daredevil had been forgotten. Ultimately, he just wanted to lead a meaningful life. He had very little money, but he found a way to bring excitement and purpose to his life by doing affordable stunts with rockets that he built himself using spare parts.”
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