You might have heard of "Mad" Mike Hughes.
In late 2017, Hughes went viral when the Associated Press wrote a piece titled "Self-taught rocket scientist plans to launch over ghost town."
Hughes, of course, was that "self-taught rocket scientist." Soon, hundreds of publications were writing about Hughes' belief in Flat Earth theory—the idea that the Earth is flat, not spherical. According to some publications, Hughes intends to launch himself into space in order to prove, once and for all, that the our planet is as flat as a pancake.
He's currently on his third attempt, having delayed the original launch in November 2017 and again on Feb. 5 this year.
We've written about Flat Earth theory before, and we're fairly skeptical of some of its believers' claims. However, when we spoke with Hughes a few weeks before his most recent non-launch, we found that there's much more to his story than meets the eye. For instance…
He's more of a daredevil than a scientist.
Hughes was widely quoted as saying that he "doesn't believe in science." While he might have said those words, his views are a bit more nuanced: He doesn't believe anything that he doesn't personally research.
"We don't ask people to believe [Flat Earth theory], just that they just research it," he says. "Research what your city council is doing, what your Congress is doing, research what Obama did for eight years. That's just what I do, I ask you to research things. We're not asking you to believe in [anything]. Believe in Santa Claus, I don't give a s***. Just research things."
Hughes does believe in his own capabilities as an engineer. He says the rocket will use "superheated water" as a heat source, which he says will propel him nearly 2,000 feet into the air.
"I've designed, built, and I'm launching myself in this rocket," Hughes says. "I'm the only man in mankind's history to ever do that. And I began that on Jan. 30, 2014, when I launched myself in my first rocket ... I went to about 500, 600 feet in altitude."
Hughes intends to take his new rocket to 1,800 feet, setting a world record in the process.
He's no stranger to accomplishing record-setting feats: he's already recognized by Guinness World Records for carrying out the "longest limousine ramp jump" in history.
Oh, by the way, Hughes is a limousine driver.
He tells us that he makes a moderate wage of about $15 an hour and that he's poured a lot of his own money into his rocket project. He's also accepted funding from Flat Earth believers, some of which was collected through the crowdsourcing website GoFundMe.
Hughes says that he realized his plan would receive quite a bit of publicity—that was part of the draw. Still, he says that he wasn't prepared for the strong reaction he's received since the original AP story broke.
"Once you put yourself out there, people will start coming out of the woodwork," he says. "It has been bizarre. I've had people from around the world wish me nothing but the best, that I'm an inspiration to mankind. And I've had people wish me dead."
That's distressing, because...
He doesn't actually intend to prove anything about the curvature of the Earth—at least not with this rocket.
And while a number of news outlets characterized Hughes' rocket as a spaceship, he says that he never intended to reach space.
"I never stated this rocket launch was ever going to prove anything," Hughes says. "I never said that. It was specified in the original Associated Press article, and people are asking, 'How is he going to prove the Flat Earth at only 1,800 feet?' It's bizarre that people would even say or think that, much less print it."
After his story went viral, his original plans for the launch ran into a few snags.
"[We planned to] jump on private property and land on a runway," he says. "That's all we wanted to do. And we had it commissioned from the BLM [Bureau of Land Management] and FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] verbally."
"Once it got publicity, all of a sudden, the BLM gets a hold of me and says, 'Wait a second—there's no permits here.'"
Hughes says that officials told him that acquiring a new permit would take a year and a half. At that point, news sites erroneously reported that the launch was cancelled, when in fact he'd simply moved it to private property. He also made a significant change to his proposed flightpath to limit the bureaucratic red tape.
"I said, 'You know what, we're going to go vertical this time. We're going to go straight up.' It's not a stunt anymore, it's a vertical launch—with a human being in a rocket. It's not a jump."
Hughes is hoping that the stunt will allow him to raise enough money for a real space expedition.
Eventually, he hopes to raise millions of dollars to build a rocket capable of reaching an altitude of 62 miles. From that vantage point, he believes he could confirm or deny the Flat Earth theory. We had to ask: Why not simply attach a camera to a much smaller rocket and send that into space?
"It's just a model rocket, then," he says. "That's all it is."
Hughes insists on verifying facts through his own experience. He's a charismatic man with a self-deprecating sense of humor—he says that he's "not smart enough" to defend all of Flat Earth theory—but he's passionate about questioning authority, and he wants to inspire others to do the same.
"Everybody wants to prove this round globe out in space," he says. "Why not prove it on this planet? You start marking out this curvature, which is supposed to be 8 inches per mile squared. Go all the way about this globe and let's do it. There's places on this planet that are absolutely flat, so if it's flat there, you've got to make up the curve somewhere else. If you do that math, there's supposed to be 700 miles of curvature between Hawaii and California. It ain't there."
"Kansas is completely flat. Amarillo is flat. The salt flat in Bolivia is flat, so where's the curvature?"
While scientists point to numerous calculations that show the Earth's curvature, many Flat Earth believers believe that those calculations are wrong.
"You've got to realize we've all been programmed our whole life, you know?" Hughes says. "And once you realize that all you've ever been taught is a lie—it's easy for me to grasp this. I couldn't dismiss [Flat Earth theory] after four or five months of research. I couldn't dismiss it. Basically, you can't trust NASA or SpaceX...they'll never give you the real story on anything."
We asked why Hughes doesn't trust NASA's evidence for a spherical Earth.
"Because NASA gets 50 million dollars a day in funding from the United States' citizen tax payers," he says. "Why should they turn that water faucet off? Who knows what kind of deal they've got going on with Elon Musk?"
But couldn't skeptics say the same thing about Hughes—that he couldn't turn his back on the Flat Earth community without losing the money he's collected from his crowdfunding campaigns?
"Well, [the crowdfunding money] is less than $8,000," he insists. "How's that going to sway my opinion on anything? … From start to finish now, I've spent $35,000 to this point, including sponsorship money."
We asked scientist Chris Tacon about NASA's bias.
Tacon has a degree in aerospace engineering, specializing in spacecraft engineering, and he's currently developing a 3D-printed rocket engine. He also worked on a team that designed a satellite to be launched in early 2018.
"NASA often gets accused of indoctrinating us into thinking the Earth is round," Tacon says. "People, naturally, need something to blame to promote their cause. However, they forget that NASA is not the world's only space agency, nor is it the only advocate for ‘round’ Earth."
"The Flat Earthers ... have a habit of not listening to anyone else’s opinions [before] providing a counter argument," Tacon tells Urbo in an email. "That's not an overly-useful character trait."
Tacon says that he sees Flat Earth theory as potentially dangerous.
"I think people also like to be rebels in some ways and believe things different from the norm," he says. "It could be dangerous, especially for kids! They start believing in these types of things through social media, then they lose confidence and focus in actual education. This can have a huge detrimental cost to society."
To be clear, we side with the scientists on this subject.
We were upfront with Hughes about our skepticism. He says he doesn't mind speaking to non-believers and insists that his belief in a flat Earth is a very small part of his life.
We asked if he'd change his mind if he were able to see a spherical Earth with his own eyes.
"Yeah, if I get up there, and the damn thing is round, why would I not?" he says. "I mean, I have no agenda. The only agenda I've got is getting the truth out there and for people to stop getting defrauded by the government, by cops, by highway patrol, by registering your cars. We're just defrauded at every point. The wars—they're all frauds. So why would I contribute to that?"
He says that he doesn't intend to convince anyone and he realizes that the Flat Earth theory is a controversial subject.
"Here's the downside to this flat Earth stuff: It divides people," he says. "And I don't want to divide people. There's too many other things to divide people … That's the downside, and I don't like that. I don't like that at all. We've got enough stuff dividing us."