Daredevil killed in rocket launch disaster

Rocket science: “Mad Mike” Hughes built the spacecraft in his own backyard in California. © CBS

Was he a hero or a fool? Mike Hughes, who believed the Earth was flat, died launching a homemade rocket this weekend. Supporters mourn an eccentric daredevil; critics say he was a crackpot.

In the vast Californian desert, excitement quickly turned into fear, confusion, and then horror.

Spectators watched as an object descended out of control from the sky, finally thudding to the ground and distorting into a terrifying pile of twisted metal. It was extraordinary for all the wrong reasons.

He wanted to be the man who changed the world, but the life of daredevil “Mad Mike” Hughes ended in disaster on Saturday when his homemade rocket crashed nose-first into the unforgiving Mojave desert in the US.

A well-known believer in the flat Earth theory, Hughes, 64, was aiming to get as close to space as possible so that he could see for himself that the Earth is “shaped like a frisbee”.

This final attempt, caught on film as part of a TV show about amateur rocket makers, was not Hughes’s first rocket launch.

In 2018, he reached speeds of 350mph in a similar launch that left him on crutches for two weeks. And years before, in 2002, Hughes set the Guinness World Record for the longest airborne jump in a full-sized limousine.

He was an extraordinary person who lived a remarkable life.

Hughes is far from the only figure to have believed in a widely ridiculed theory.

Marie Curie, whose research led to the invention of the X-ray, was spurned and criticised for her ideas. Meteorologist Alfred Wegener, who proposed that the Earth’s continents were once a single landmass was accused of “delirious ravings”. Yet both of them were correct.

However, Hughes was undoubtedly wrong about the Earth being flat.

Despite this, the number of people who believe in the theory is growing. A 2018 YouGov survey found that one-in-six American adults are not completely sure the world is round.

Hughes had many fans, but he was also labelled by many as a “crackpot”.

His critics say his death has proved them right. Even so, had he reached space in a homemade rocket, he would probably have been celebrated simply for that.

Humanity loves a colourful eccentric. For instance, in 1982, Larry Walters, known as Lawnchair Larry, became in instant celebrity after he took a 45-minute flight (complete with a sandwich and beer) 15,000ft over Los Angeles in a patio chair attached to 45 helium balloons.

So, was Mad Mike a hero or a fool?

Disaster strikes

A hero, of course, say some. Hughes lived a more interesting life than the vast majority of people ever will. He took incredible steps and overcame fear to pursue his goals. Even if he was totally wrong about the Earth being flat, he was not stupid. He was brave, thought for himself, and tested his theories himself. He deserves to be remembered as an inspiration.

A fool, say others. Building a rocket in your back garden is obviously a terrible idea. The flat Earth movement is nothing more than a crazy conspiracy theory. To take such risks is irresponsible and dangerous. Hughes was probably mentally ill in some way and should be pitied, not held up as any kind of example.

You Decide

  1. Is it ever right to put yourself in danger in the name of science?
  2. Why do people believe in conspiracy theories?

Activities

  1. Imagine that you are a real astronaut. Write half a page as a diary entry about your thoughts as you prepare to go into space.
  2. Research and prepare a two-minute presentation about a scientist or inventor who was widely ridiculed for their ideas or beliefs. Did they continue despite criticism? Were they later vindicated?

Some People Say...

“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.”

Helen Keller (1880-1968), US author and the first deaf-blind person to earn a BA degree

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that Mike Hughes was just plain wrong about the Earth being flat. The Earth is, in fact, round and humans have been aware of this for over 2,000 years. But is also widely accepted that being crazy about some things is not necessary a disqualification for genius in others. Pythagoras was one of the greatest mathematicians who ever lived. He also happened to believe that fava beans contained the souls of the dead.
What do we not know?
The disputed territory in this debate is whether the two virtues that Mike Hughes embodied above all others – courage and independence – outweigh the failing of being scientifically misguided. We are taught to be brave and think for ourselves. It is arguable that these two qualities are actually the key to a successful and happy life. Is there anything so terrible about being wrong or being called “mad” by other people?

Word Watch

Flat Earth theory
The belief that the Earth is flat has been described as the ultimate conspiracy theory. According to the Flat Earth Society, its ranks have grown by 200 people per year since 2009. Judging by the exhaustive effort flat-Earthers have invested in fleshing out the theory, it would seem that these people genuinely believe the Earth is flat.
Amateur
A person who does something for the love of it and without being paid.
Marie Curie
A Polish-French physicist and chemist who was a pioneer in the study of radiation. She was the first woman to win a Nobel Prize. She died as a consequence of exposure to radiation.
Meteorologist
A scientist that specialises in weather.
Wegener
In 1912, he proposed the theory of continental drift (the idea that Earth’s continents move). It was only widely accepted by other scientists in the 1960s, after Wegener’s death.
Conspiracy theory
A belief that some secret but influential organisation is responsible for an unexplained event.

Subjects

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