When Mike Hughes climbed into the homemade rocket he would eventually die in Saturday afternoon, he was well aware of the risks.
"When I’m walking up the ramp, I'm thinking: Am I walking up to the gallows where I am going to hang myself?” he told me in 2018. “That goes through your mind.”
Hughes, who rose to fame by building amateur rocket flights and dreaming of proving the earth was flat, died when his steam-powered rocket crashed in the Barstow, California desert this weekend. The goal of the launch was to send Hughes to 5,000 feet, where he would then parachute safely back to ground. If this flight succeeded, the plan was to send Hughes to a height where he could gaze to the earth below and see that it was flat.
Things went wrong quickly after the launch.
After giving his team the go-ahead, the 64-year-old’s rocket went skyward, leaving behind only a plume of steam. The rocket went off-kilter immediately upon launching, deploying a parachute straight away. Things went from bad to catastrophic when the rocket reached its apex. Waldo Stakes, Hughes’ long time rocket partner, wrote in an impassioned Facebook post that, at the rocket’s highest point, the crew began to frantically message Hughes to deploy the other parachutes—the buttons were “right at his fingertips”—but got no reply. In footage taken by a journalist on the scene, the crowd was silent as the rocket rapidly approached the earth with no sign of slowing down.
Eighteen seconds after taking off, Hughes and his rocket slammed into the earth. Emergency crew pronounced him dead at the scene.
“The chutes were found not deployed in the wreckage,” wrote Stakes, who did not respond to a request for comment from VICE. “He never tried to fire them. It will always be a mystery and no one will ever know for sure.”
Hughes’ launch, and therefore, his death, was filmed for Homemade Astronauts, a reality show that was supposed to air on the Science Channel—which is owned by Discovery Inc. The show would “follow three self-financed teams with sky-high dreams, in their cosmic quest to explore the final frontier on limited budgets,” according to the channel.
A source told VICE Hughes handled his own logistics and the show's future is now up in the air. Discovery said in a press release it was just there to "chronicle [Hughes'] journey."
A spokesperson for the company would not provide VICE with a contract similar to the one Hughes had signed. When asked if they were willing to expand on how much they were paying Hughes for the project and if they provided Hughes with insurance, the spokesperson simply replied with “nope.”
Jonathan Handel, an entertainment lawyer and contributing editor at The Hollywood Reporter, told VICE the network wouldn’t be liable for anything in part because Hughes was already planning this launch—this would be different in reality shows such as Fear Factor or Survivor where the scenario is designed and the participants thrust into it. Handel added that the contract Hughes most likely signed included an "assumption of risk" section and the production would be even further insulated by entertainment insurance policies.
"He didn't die during the filming of a TV show, he died during an exercise that he himself had planned and was choosing to do. He allowed the TV show to film,” said Handel. “They are not the ones who induced him to try to do this in the first place.”
Hughes, a former limousine driver, long considered himself one of the top daredevils in the world. In 2002, Hughes set a world record for a jump over 100 feet in a limo. However, he didn't gain much fame until he took to the air in a rocket.
In 2014, Hughes launched himself 1,374 feet above Arizona in a homemade rocket. Finding funding for his stunts proved to be difficult, but this changed when Hughes, who had an intense distrust for the government, voiced his doubts that the earth was a globe. Hughes then received a bit of funding from the flat earth community and proudly painted “Research Flat Earth” on the side of the red rocket and went vertical yet again on March 24, 2018. That time he climbed to 1,875 feet and, despite a hard-as-hell landing—Hughes told VICE in 2018 he was late to releasing the parachutes and he hit so hard he thought he broke his back—the launch was considered a success. Hughes told me he knew he wouldn’t get high enough to prove anything, but hoped to train and fundraise enough to get there one day.
Hughes' goal to prove the earth was flat, and his rather unique plan to gather the evidence, garnered him plenty of media coverage and even a feature-length documentary.
"We need the answer, and I'm not going to take any government space agency's answer on that," he told VICE. "I don't care if it's Russia, the United States, or China. I'm going to go up there and I'm going to see it for myself."
Hughes's flat earth bonafides seem to be up in the air following his death, however. In his conversation with VICE in 2018, Hughes was adamant that he didn’t believe the earth was round. He wanted to see for himself and said, “if I go up and it's a globe, I'm going to tell you it's a globe.” Furthermore, in his Facebook post, Stakes said his friend “was a real flat earther” who “had dozens of books on the subject.”
However, after his death, Hughes's publicist Darren Shuster told VICE the entire gimmick was for publicity.
“As his PR rep for 17 years, and privy to hundreds of hours one-on-one, I can say with certainty: He was a great American daredevil,” said Shuster. “While open to the idea of government conspiracies, he was a daredevil who used flat earth publicity to get worldwide attention. It was a PR stunt. We used the attention to get sponsorships and it kept working over and over again. For the sake of Mike’s legacy, it’s time to tell the truth.”
In a Facebook post, Stakes said Shuster “made it all up” and “is totally full of shit.”
Hughes, a colourful but unpracticed speaker, said that he thinks people should, above all, be kind to people, and follow their dreams no matter what.
“What you've got is right now—you don't have tomorrow; you don't have next week,” he told me in our 2018 talk. “Do the most with what you've got today.”
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This article originally appeared on VICE CA.