I first encountered “Mad” Mike Hughes, a self-taught rocketeer, about a year before his death. He was speaking at the Adventurers’ Club of Los Angeles. The then-62-year-old flat-earther had already launched himself nearly 2,000 feet into the sky twice in steam-powered rockets that he’d built himself—and he was planning to do it again.
Hughes was also building a “rockoon”—part rocket, part balloon—to send himself 62.8 miles up to the edge of space, known as the Kármán Line, to “see what shape this planet is” for himself this October. His talk at the Adventurers’ Club, a men’s organization with exotic animal busts and shrunken heads and mastodon tusks on the walls, was part self-promotion and part of his $2.8 million crowdfunding effort for the rockoon launch.
“At one time in this country, we thought anything was possible, but we don’t believe we can do anything anymore,” Hughes told me. “Maybe [this launch] inspires the guy who’s really going to change the world, or the group of people.”
Hughes’s exploits included a Guinness World Record for longest limo jump in 2002, a run for governor of California in 2018, and hosting a Flat Earth conference in Vegas in 2019. He was the subject of a documentary called Rocketman, and he was taking part in an upcoming Science Channel show called Homemade Astronauts. He was also known for his fiercely anti-government views.
Born in Oklahoma City in 1956, Michael Jay Hughes started racing motorcycles at age 12 and later competed on the AMA Pro Flat Track racing circuit. In the ’80s, he was part of a NASCAR pit crew, and in the ’90s, he became a limousine driver. He branded himself King of the Daredevils and began jumping limos by driving them off ramps. He wanted to soar across the quarter-mile-wide Snake River Canyon in Idaho on a rocket-propelled motorcycle, a stunt Evel Knievel had failed to do in 1974. But Hughes couldn’t get the necessary local government approval, so he taught himself rocket science—and how to do actual rocket launches—in Arizona and California. In 2014, Hughes sent himself 1,374 feet into the air in a self-made, steam-powered rocket. Four years later, he topped that, soaring 1,875 feet. He crash-landed and seriously injured himself both times, but that didn’t stop him.
After his talk at the Adventurers’ Club, I started writing a profile of Hughes. I visited him at his home, in Apple Valley, California, a small desert town about 90 miles northeast of Los Angeles. Tall, white, ranch-style gates with bull horns, an old lamppost, and a sign that read El Ranchito Rakete—the Rocket Ranch—marked the entrance of a five-acre property he rented from Waldo Stakes. Aside from being his landlord, Stakes helped build Hughes’s rockets, the rockoon, and a boat Hughes hoped would break the world speed record.
Hughes was tinkering with a 14-foot rocket in the driveway when I arrived. The parts he was collecting for the rockoon—which he and Stakes had named Hemingway—lay on the concrete floor of the garage. A broken-down limo sat in a corner of the dusty yard.
Hughes looked the part of a mad-scientist daredevil with his wild silver hairdo and boyish grin. He had four cats, which he was quick to point out made him a crazy cat person, though not as crazy as if he’d had six, like he used to have. His latest book, Mad Mike Hughes: The Tell-All Tale, was dedicated to those two late felines, Alex and JoJo.
He lived a simple life. Stakes said Hughes paid him $323 a month in rent. They bought parts for the rockets as cheaply as they could, from scrap-yards, Craigslist, or eBay. Hughes took a 35 percent cut in his Social Security payments by retiring at age 62 instead of 67. “As a daredevil, I figured I was playing the odds,” he quipped.
The walls of his living room were decorated with newspaper clippings, magazine covers, pieces of aircraft, his Guinness World Records plaque, the remains of a ripped-up parachute, numerous photos, and the armband he wore in the greenroom before his appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live. There were also the books he’d authored (or dictated), a Mad Mike coloring book, and memorabilia from his NASCAR and motorcycle racing days. He was particularly proud of the prototype of a rabbit astronaut doll called Stunt Bunny that Hughes was going to carry with him up to the Kármán Line. He predicted that it would be the hottest toy this Christmas.
After showing me his mementos, Hughes delivered a rambling, passionate diatribe about lies and corruption in our society and various conspiracy theories he believed. He argued that a person’s name in all caps—such as on a passport or birth certificate—is not actually their name but rather a business entity that someone else can purchase via UCC-1 financial statement filings with the California secretary of state.
He told me how he had “purchased” the “entities” of President Barack Obama, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and many others, including judges, traffic cops who’d issued him speeding tickets, and lawyers who’d sent him cease-and-desist letters. He then filed lawsuits against the people whose entities he’d purchased in a futile attempt to extract money from them for improperly using his “property.” At the time of his death, several of his lawsuits were lingering in San Bernardino superior court. After accessing his court records, I learned that his lawsuit against Obama had been dismissed because Hughes hadn’t shown up at a trial-setting hearing in February. Not surprisingly, neither had Obama.
Kooky stuff, yes, but Hughes was all business when it came to planning his third rocket launch. Although Stakes was against the steam-powered rocket launches because he considered them too dangerous, Hughes wanted to do a last, higher launch before they attempted to send him up in the rockoon in October. After nearly a year of multiple delays, I saw Hughes speak again at the Adventurers’ Club and learned that the launch was set for February 22.
That day, I drove two hours from L.A. to an undisclosed location on the desert outskirts of Barstow. I couldn’t find the launch site, so I asked a waiter at a local biker bar. Luckily, she had seen Hughes’s team transporting the rocket a couple of days before and gave me loose directions.
I found the spot and briefly spoke to Hughes just before the launch. He wore a blue jumpsuit adorned with patches from his sponsors: a New Zealand dating app called Hud (its slogan: “Dating isn’t rocket science”) and a restaurant chain called Juan Pollo, which is a fast-food chicken business owned by Albert Okura, who bought the town of Amboy for $425,000 in 2005 and allowed Hughes to launch his second rocket there.
Hughes was pacing nervously and declined to grant me an interview. “Launch day is an intense day,” he had told me earlier. “I’m not fearless. Things do scare me.”
Nearby, the freshly painted white and purple rocket, bearing sponsor logos and the words “Research Flat Earth,” rested on a metal launch ramp fastened to the back of a semitruck. About 50 excited spectators, including a crew from the Science Channel and some of his flat-earth buddies, gathered a few dozen yards away. Stakes told the crowd not to take their eyes off the rocket: “Right now, this thing’s a bomb. Once it launches, it’s a missile.” I asked him how high Hughes was planning to go that day. He paused, turned to me, and said, “Real high.”
At 1:44 p.m., Hughes climbed up a metal ladder that he’d insisted—against his team’s advice—be affixed to the launch ramp to make it easier for him to slide into the rocket’s cockpit.
As soon as the rocket lifted off, something went wrong. Hughes and his rocket climbed several thousand feet into a windy, partly cloudy sky before the rocket’s flight path curved into a large arc, its ascent becoming a descent. Excitement turned to horror. Spectators wailed as the rocket nose-dived into the desert floor. Then, an eerie, solemn silence. Hughes’s final flight had lasted about 30 seconds.
Stakes’s initial assessment was that the fuselage had grazed the ladder, ripping off a parachute can and causing it to deploy prematurely. He later concluded that a pneumatic cylinder had damaged a nozzle, making the rocket jolt to the right. Stakes thinks that likely knocked Hughes out. He never pulled his reserve parachutes.
I had filmed the event and posted the video on Twitter; it went viral, with five million views in three days, and garnered significant media attention. It was a surreal experience, and some questioned the ethics of posting what essentially amounted to a snuff film. But I know Hughes would have wanted me to. He had wanted everyone to see his launches, and he was fully aware of the possibility of a tragic outcome. “Most people will not roll the dice,” he had told me.
I wish Hughes could have lived to launch himself in his Hemingway rockoon to the edge of space. He wanted it to be the most-watched event in human history and to provide incontrovertible proof of the shape of our planet. I’m no flat-earther—it’s a ridiculous theory—but I can’t help being struck by how often Hughes risked his life for the sake of doing something extraordinary. If his goal was to inspire people, then I know he succeeded. There’s nothing ridiculous about that.
Justin Chapman is a journalist and the communications officer at the Pacific Council on International Policy. He is the author of Saturnalia: Traveling from Cape Town to Kampala in Search of an African Utopia.