Space Travel

Flat Earth proponent kills himself in rocket launch

by Jarrah White BSc
 

Flat Earth is officially Life Threatening

Promoting Flat Earth nonsense has always been self-destructive. Anyone who promotes it is functioning below the expected level of a kindergarten student and in doing so completely sabotages their own credibility while also potentially destroying any chance they might have of success in society. They can never hope to undertake anything empirical or worthwile. No realists or critical thinkers will ever take them seriously – implying that the Earth is flat can be both career suicide and the path to social rejection. Now believing in a flat Earth has officially become life threatening.

In recent years US daredevil Mike Hughes gained a lot of attention in the media by announcing his plan to launch himself atop a homemade steam-powered rocket and prove that the Earth is flat [Fig. 1]. He even started a fundraiser for this project, raising $7,875 from any Flat Earther stupid enough to donate towards this nonsense [C. Dwyer, 2017].

Fig 1
Figure 1: Mike Hughes with his steam-powered rocket (top). Hughes at the controls of his rocket (bottom). Note how the aft end of his cockpit is open and his helmet is not sealed at the front.

When it comes to people who seriously promote this Flat Earth nonsense, they generally come in three categories. First, there are the conmen who prey on anyone naïve enough to buy their products or watch idiotic YouTube videos that are designed to generate income through ad monetization. Second, there are the scientifically-illiterate who are exploited by the first category. Third, there are disinformation agents who link investigators of valid or even proven conspiracy investigations, with these Flat Earthers in an attempt to tar everyone with the same brush and thereby undermine their credibility. The Flat Earth proponents can deny it all they want, but these are their only three options. Any actual critical thinker would know better than to subscribe to such nonsense.

It is relatively easy to narrow down which of the three categories a Flat Earth proponent is most likely to fall into, and their modus operandi is generally a good indicator. However, in the case of Mike Hughes, it is difficult to tell if he was a true believer or just pretended to promote Flat Earth in order to gain funding from people misguided enough to support his crazy crusade.

Hughes had told Associated Press that:
“Do I believe the Earth is shaped like a Frisbee? I believe it is. Do I know for sure? No. That’s why I want to go up in space.” This statement has been echoed verbatim and paraphrased by Hughes in many other interviews, including the 2017 documentary about his project entitled, Rocketman: Mad Mike's Mission to Prove the Flat Earth. In that video Hughes was quoted as saying:

“I'm not going to take anyone else's word for it, or NASA, or especially Elon Musk with SpaceX. I'm going to build my own rocket right here and I'm going to see it with my own eyes what shape this world we live on.”

He also frequently made a very public rejections of science and shunned explorers and researchers who have actually proven the curvature of the Earth. He infamously stated that both contemporary and historical figures dating back to antiquity were all involved in “the roots of deception”. His list included, but was not limited to, John Glenn, Elon Musk, even Aristotle. He also told Associated Press:

“I don’t believe in science. I know about aerodynamics and fluid dynamics and how things move through the air, about the certain size of rocket nozzles, and thrust. But that’s not science, that’s just a formula. There’s no difference between science and science fiction.”

For somebody who openly stated that he planned on flying a rocket, let alone fly it to space, this is a pretty ironic thing to say. Because in order to make rockets that work – rocket science is required! However, an interview that he gave Space.com seems to contradict these anti-science statements and declarations:

“Although I do believe in the Flat Earth, this was never an attempt to prove that. This Flat Earth has nothing to do with the steam rocket launches, it never did, it never will. I'm a daredevil!"

Confused? So am I! What is clear though is that in 2016 Hughes started a fundraiser on Kickstarter attempting to raise $150,000 for a world record breaking 1 mile rocket jump stunt. Nowhere near to space then. But he only managed to raise $310 from two backers. The following year, he started a new fundraiser on GoFundMe, which was hyped as his attempt to prove that Earth is flat. While it fell short of his original goal that second fundraise was substantially more successful, with the backing of 130 donors. Maybe he felt the need to capitalize on the gullibility of ill-informed people in order to raise the funds that he needed? Or, given that flying to the edge of space was never in his original plan, maybe he truly went off the deep end at some stage after his first fundraise failed. That’s also a possibility. Yet, by his own admission, in a 2017 NPR interview Hughes stated he had believed in a Flat Earth for nearly a year. Which takes us back to 2016.

Whatever the case, what is for certain is that, ironically, his rocket was not up to either task. The highest he’s been able to reach in altitude is just over half of 1km [BBC News Online, 2020]. By comparison, commercial airliners reach their peak at about 10km altitude or a couple of kilometers above the peak of Mount Everest, and there the curvature of Earth becomes just noticeable [Fig. 2]. Above 10km the curving horizon becomes progressively more noticeable.

Fig 2

Figure 2. An example of the curving horizon visible from an aircraft taken with an infrared camera – ironically photographed by a Flat Earther, image: J. Tolan.


In a 2017 interview with The Maine Edge, Hughes now claimed he intended to reach an altitude of 62miles or 100km – the edge of space also known as the Kármán Line. With a balloon carrying him to 20 miles, and then firing the rocket to the remaining 42 miles.

“I’m going to have a balloon built at [a cost of] about $250,000 with $100,000 worth of hydrogen in it. It will lift me up about 20 miles. Then I’ll fire a rocket through the balloon that will pull me up by my shoulders through a truss for 42 miles at 1.5gs. People will be able to talk to me on the internet on the way up – if I’m still conscious. Everything will be controlled remotely. Even if I’m unconscious, they can use the controls to bring the balloon back. That is the plan. That is if I don’t burn up coming back through the atmosphere.”

Apparently he did not realize how ill equipped he was to pull off this mission. Nor did he have a clue what he was talking about. First, let’s address the obvious. Space vehicles only burn up in the atmosphere if they plunge through it at hypersonic velocities and without any heat-shielding. The highest velocity Hughes was able to reach in his 0.57km altitude rocket test was 350mph (563km/hr) [Los Angeles Times, 2018]. By comparison, the Space Shuttle Columbia was doing Mach 23 (28,400km/hr) when it burned up in the atmosphere.

Second, judging by the photos of the rocket, it is not even pressurized. You can see that the aft end of the rocket is completely open and exposed [Fig. 1]. Nor was he wearing a pressure suit. For direct comparison, on November 11th 1935, USAAC pilots Stevens and Anderson ascended to an altitude of 22km and photographed pictures of the curving horizon aboard the Explorer II balloon (not to be confused with the ill-fated Explorer 2 satellite). The only reason they were able to survive the journey was because they ascended in a pressurized gondola to keep them alive from the lack of pressure outside [Fig. 3]. Hughes’ mission was a disaster waiting to happen and a disaster is what we got.


Fig 3a

Figure 3a. Curvature of Earth as photographed from Explorer II in 1935.

Fig 3b

Fig 3b. The pressurized gondola manned by U.S. Army Air Corps Captains Albert W. Stevens and Orvil A. Anderson on the high altitude Explorer II balloon in 1935.

On February 22, 2020, the rocket took off with Hughes at the controls. The parachute deployed during launch, got caught up in the exhaust and detached [Fig. 4]. The rocket reached its peak and then came crashing back to the ground killing Hughes on impact. He died not for some great and noble cause. He died not trying to contribute to the ever growing number of non-governmental space missions. He died on a fool’s errand: to try and prove that the Earth is flat.

Fig 4

Figure 4. Sequence of events showing Mike Hughes’ fatal rocket launch.

Seriously, did no one stop to think how absurd this endeavour is? Over 350 people have strapped themselves atop the US Space Shuttle and ascended to the Kármán Line. And over 100 more have done the same aboard the Russian Soyuz capsules. They’ve all reported that the Earth is spherical. And hundreds, if not thousands more fighter and airline pilots, have ascended high enough to see the curvature of the Earth. Even on the ground, there are countless every day practices and observations that are only consistent with a spherical Earth. Like the fact that we have very different stars and constellations in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres [Fig. 5].

Fig 5
Figure 5, larger version here. Star charts of the Northern (right) and Southern Hemisphere (left) constellations, image Hoshifru hoshifuru.jp.

The fact that ships and buildings become obscured from the bottom up at great distances from the observer [Fig. 6].

Fig 6
Figure 6. An example of the Toronto skyline blocked by the Earth’s curvature – ironically recorded by a Flat Earther, image: Jenna Fredo.

The fact that geophysicists can detect Earthquakes on the other side of the planet with global seismology and have even mapped the interior using seismology [Fig. 7]. Or the fact that anyone can take a tourist trip to the South Pole and watch the 24hour sun all day and night long [A. Prowell, 2015].

Fig 7Figure 7. Seismic data has been used to look into the Earth and map its internal structure. Seismic surveys are only consistent with Earth being spherical.

Not only that, now that Space Tourism is a reality, if you had any doubts about the countless space missions and astronauts that have seen and photographed the curvature, you can pay to go up and see it for yourself. For a few million dollars, you can pay for a ride an a Soyuz craft and stay aboard the International Space Station. There you can observe the curved Earth for as long as you want. At the time of writing, a total of seven tourists have already flown to the ISS. Space Tourist Guy Laliberté famously published photographs that he took of the Earth from the comfort of the ISS. It is even possible to reach space without the help of government agencies. Michael Melvil and Brian Binnie ascended into suborbit aboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipOne and took spectacular photos of the Earth from 100km altitude [Fig. 8].

Fig 7
Figure 8. Earth photographed from SpaceShipOne, the world’s first non-governmental spacecraft, image: Brian Binnie.

And the Falcon Heavy demo flight that carried Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster to escape velocity was funded by the man himself, and it broadcast a 4-hour live feed of the Earth from 7,000km altitude [Fig. 9]. Anyone could get into space through the private sector if they paid for it. Wouldn’t one of these trips to space have been a more worthwhile fundraise for Flat Earthers?

Fig 9
Figure 9. Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster in space. Note the shape of the Earth behind Starman, image: SpaceX.

Better still, with all the money that he raised on this venture, Hughes could have purchased a first-class aircraft ticket to from the United States to Australia, or anywhere under the equator. Not only would he have been able to see the curvature of Earth from his window, but once below the equator he would also have been able to see the Southern Hemisphere constellations. These are completely different to the constellations he would have been used to seeing in America.

I have flown to the Northern Hemisphere three times. Speaking from personal experience, it is quite jarring to not see the Southern Cross (or Crux) constellation in the night sky. Not to mention seeing the Moon inverted from how I expect to see it in Australia. And I’m sure it would have been equally jarring for Hughes not to see Polaris or The Big Dipper in Australia. The reason for the very different night skies in the Northern and Southern Hemispheres has everything to do with the Earth’s curvature. A southern observer’s view of the northern stars is blocked by the Earth’s curvature and vice versa. Likewise, the Moon inverts between hemispheres because observers are looking at it with a complete 180° reorientation [Fig. 10].

Fig 7
Figure 10. Diagram illustrating why the Moon appears inverted between hemispheres. It only makes sense on a spherical Earth, image: Science Alert.

For further proof, one need only go to the equator. The equator is the only location on Earth where you’ll see both sets of constellations simultaneously as they rotate around their respective celestial poles. At the same time, you’ll also see stars bound East to West moving in a straight line [Fig. 11]. Such astrophotography has been recorded by equatorial observers all over the world. If you live in America, you need not even fly to these equatorial regions. All Mike Hughes had to do was drive down to Panama City, Panama; catch a RORO (Roll-on, Roll-off) ferry to Buenaventura, Columbia; drive the rest of the way to Quito, Ecuador, and watch the stars.

Such a trip would have cost substantially less than his rocket. He would have only needed to pay for the petrol, ferry toll, and the camera to take long time-lapse photos of the equatorial stars. And he would still be alive.

Fig 11
Figure 11. Stunning time-lapse photo from the equator. This picture was taken using long exposures and the rotation of the Earth. The curvature of Earth is self-evident in this photograph with Northern and Southern stars rotating around their respective celestial poles while the stars East to West move in a straight line, image: J.C. Casado/starryearth.com.

But perhaps the best proof for a spherical Earth is its ability to make accurate predictions. This in turn can be used to directly answer the key point of contention with Flat Earth proponents. They are fond of going to the beach and shouting “The horizon is flat! Therefore Earth is flat!” which begs a very legitimate question: exactly how much curvature are they expecting to see? Since Eratosthenes, we’ve known the Earth’s circumference is over 40,000km. This has been confirmed and refined over the last two thousand years with greater precision, approximating it today to 40,075km. Since there are 360° in a full circle or sphere, this means the Earth’s rate of curvature is:

40,075km/360° ≈ 111.32km/°

That tells you all you really need to know. Get out a circular protractor and see how curved 1° looks! But why stop there? This rate of curvature can be used to predict how much curvature should be visible at any given height, which then can be cross-checked with reality. As stated above, the interior of Earth has been mapped with global seismology. Through these direct measurements, we know the mean radius of the Earth is 6,378.1km. Let’s imagine that we have a big right angle triangle [Fig. 12].

Fig 12

Figure 12. Diagram illustrating how to properly predict how much curvature of Earth should be visible at any given height.

The adjacent side will be the radius of Earth (R), its hypotenuse will simply be the radius plus the observer height (R + h). The observer’s line of sight to the horizon will be the opposite side of the right triangle, but what we are interested in is the angle ϴ between the adjacent and hypotenuse. This we can use to determine how much curvature will be visible at a given height and the arc-length of the surface between the observer and the horizon.

Let’s do some quick predictions and cross-check them. If we set the observer height to h = 2m, we get:

Adjacent = 6,378,100m
Hypotenuse = 6,378,102m

→ ϴ = cos-1 (6,378,100m/6,378,102m) = 0.0454°
→ 0.0454°*111.32km/degree = 5.05km

This comports perfectly with what we see in reality. At ground level objects start to become obscured from bottom up at distances greater than 5km away and the amount of visible curvature is negligible [Fig. 6]. For all intents and purposes, 0.0454° certainly looks flat. But looks can be deceiving. Now let's try something higher, say the peak of the Empire State Building.

Adjacent = 6,378,100m
Hypotenuse = 6,378,481m

→ ϴ = cos-1(6,378,100m/6,378,481m) = 0.6262°
→ 0.6262°*111.32km/degree = 69.71km

Again, this correlates with reality. Looking south-west from atop the Empire State Building, we can see all the way past Staten Island with New Jersey beyond that kissing the edge of the horizon, which is indeed within the 70km line of sight. Again, the horizon itself looks flat, apart from undulations [Fig. 13].

Fig 13
Figure 13, image ©2020 Empire State Realty Trust, larger version here. Photograph taken atop the Empire State Building with predicted line of sight to horizon, measured in Google Maps (inset). The Statue of Liberty and Staten Island can be seen beyond the distance of the new One World Trade Centre. Beyond Staten Island, New Jersey is just visible fading into the horizon. This photo isn’t taken high enough to see pronounced curvature. But if Earth is flat, why can’t we see beyond New Jersey all the way down to Antarctica? You should be able to see all the way across the Earth if it were flat. Google Map data, 2020.

Again, looks can be deceiving. How about we go even higher? Perhaps the cruising altitudes of aircraft, about 10km.

Adjacent = 6,378,100m
Hypotenuse = 6,388,100m

→ ϴ = cos-1(6,378,100m/6,388,100m) = 3.2063°
→ 3.2063°*111.32km/degree = 356.92km

From this calculation we can predict that at cruising altitudes we should be able to see objects from about 357km away. And we should start to be a marginal amount of curvature. And sure enough, that’s exactly what we see in photos taken from cruising altitudes [Fig 2]. How about we try the height at the edge of space?

Adjacent = 6,378,100m
Hypotenuse = 6,478,100m

→ ϴ = cos-1(6,378,100m/6,478,100m) = 10.0803°
→ 10.0803°*111.32km/degree = 1,122.14km

Once again, it all checks out. Photographs from suborbital missions taken bang on the Kármán Line clearly show an undeniably pronounced curve, such as the photo Brian Binnie took aboard SpaceShipOne [Fig. 8]. This is exactly why the globe model holds true. You can use it to make predictions with incredibly precise accuracy. People who understand the geometry of the planet and the celestial bodies can use it make predictions about what they would expect to see at any given time and place, and those expectations will always match up with reality.

By contrast, the flat Earth cannot be used to make accurate predictions – at all. If the Earth were flat, why should there even be a horizon at arbitrary distance at an arbitrary height? If the Earth is flat, why can’t we see all the way across it? There is no geometric or mathematical explanation as to how an enormous flat plane can form a short-range horizon substantially far from its actual edge. Which essentially makes the flat Earth useless for calculating such predictions. Had Mike Hughes done a simple calculation using the methods described previously, he would have immediately seen why his expectations were wrong. And maybe after cross-referencing these predictions with reality, he would have walked away with a better understanding of the world around him. Rather than throw his life away.

This Flat Earth nonsense has to stop now. Not only has it poisoned the minds of millions of people worldwide, now it has ultimately led to involuntary suicide. Regardless of whether Hughes truly believed this stuff or was just trying to exploit the stupid to raise funds for his rocket stunts, everyone who promoted this Flat Earth nonsense has blood on their hands. Everyone who warped Hughes’ mind with this nonsense or compelled him to capitalize on stupidity has blood on their hands. Everyone who encouraged him on this fool’s errand has blood on their hands. If Flat Earth proponents have any concern for the wellbeing of their audiences, then what they should do right now out of respect for Mike Hughes is shutdown their websites, take down their YouTube videos, and cease publication of any books and DVDs propagating Flat Earth nonsense.

Jarrah White

Aulis Online, March, 2020

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About the Author

Jarrah White

Jarrah White is an Australian filmmaker, astrophysicist and geologist. He has Certificate III & IV qualifications with distinctions in Screen and Media at the Sydney Institute of TAFE NSW, Australia; and a BSc with Major in Geology and a Minor in Astrophysics completed in November 2017 and July 2019 respectively.

 

 

We consider that this analysis falls under the ‘fair use’ laws of the USA, the United Kingdom and other countries, therefore any copyrighted material is included on a not-for-profit basis for research, discussion and educational purposes only.


References

BBC News Online (2020), “'Mad' Mike Hughes dies after crash-landing homemade rocket”.
J. Bowler (2018) “The Moon Is Flipped on The Other Side of The World, And It's Freaking Us Out”, Science Alert.
C. Dywer (2017) “'I Don't Believe In Science,' Says Flat-Earther Set To Launch Himself In Own Rocket”, NPR.
C. Gohd (2020) “'Mad Mike' wasn't trying to prove 'flat Earth' theory on ill-fated homemade rocket launch”, Space.com
P. Graham, M. Balsamo (2018) “Self-taught rocket scientist blasts off into California sky”, Associated Press.
The Los Angeles Times (2018) “Flat-Earther’s steam-powered rocket lofts him 1,875 feet up into Mojave Desert sky”, Los Angeles Times.
The Maine Edge (2017) “‘Mad’ Mike Hughes – limo driver turned rocket man”, Maine Edge.
A. Prowell (2015) “Frozen South: Antarctica 24 hour Sun 4K”, YouTube.

M. Wall (2017) “Flat-Earther to Launch Himself in Homemade Steam Rocket Saturday”, Space.com.

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