“Mad Mike” Hughes died on February 22 when the parachutes on his homemade steam rocket failed to deploy and he augured into the sagebrush near Barstow, California, like a giant lawn dart plummeting at more than 300 miles per hour. I helped to kill him.
Not because I designed or built the rocket, and not because I belted him into the cockpit. But because I was there, ostensibly covering the event as news even though I knew—like nearly everybody else watching the launch—that it was a pointlessly stupid stunt.
“Thanks for coming all the way out here. I really appreciate it,” Mike told me about an hour before the crash. I think he honestly meant it. Because it was people like me who imbued his quest with some larger meaning. Without an audience, he was just a lone lunatic shouting incoherently in a barren desert.
Since then, I’ve read long, dry obituaries in The New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The Washington Post. All of them prominently featured Mike’s harmlessly harebrained belief that the Earth was flat. While these august publications didn’t make the point explicitly, the implication was clear: Here was another madman who got what he deserved. To be sure, Mike was a conspiracy theorist par excellence. He was convinced that shadowy international cabals were running the world. He thought the lunar landing had been a hoax. At the time of his death, he was under indictment for extortion, thanks to a scheme based on his theory that spelling a person’s name entirely in capital letters entitled someone else to their entire estate (or something like that).
But, of course, his biggest delusion was that there was widespread interest in his antics. And we in the media enabled him. At least I enabled him. And I’ll always regret it.
I met Mike through Waldo Stakes. A self-taught engineer tinged with genius, Waldo had designed motorcycles that set speed records at Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats. In 2012, I wrote a story about the car he was building in an effort to break the sound barrier. I was fascinated by his plan to repurpose space-age-era NASA and military-surplus components to bring the land speed record back to the US from the UK. He, in turn, was fascinated by daredevils, from Evel Knievel to Annie Edson Taylor, the retired schoolteacher who plunged down Niagara Falls inside a barrel in 1901.
Waldo heard that somebody was trying to reprise Knievel’s spectacularly unsuccessful 1974 jump across Snake River Canyon in a steam-powered rocket. This, it turned out, was Mike Hughes, who billed himself as “the world’s most famous limo driver” by virtue of having set a world record for the longest jump in a Lincoln Town Car with the flying qualities of a cinderblock. Waldo checked out the steam rocket Mike had built at a truck shop in Fontana. “It was horrible,” he says. But he was impressed with the audacity of Mike’s vision. So Waldo invited Mike to live on property he owned on the southern edge of the Mojave in Apple Valley—Waldo had whimsically dubbed it El Ranchito Rakete—and it was there that work commenced on a new-and-improved launch vehicle.
A steam rocket is a relatively straightforward device. Water stored in a vessel is heated to reach a predetermined pressure. When the superheated water is released, it passes through a nozzle at the base of the fuselage and turns to steam, producing the thrust necessary to launch the rocket. Although Mike was a fine fabricator and an excellent mechanic, he knew nothing about rocketry, and he was constantly running up against his technical limitations.
Mike’s first launch, from a remote site near Winkelman, Arizona, in 2014, should have been his last. The rocket flew sideways instead of straight up. Disoriented, Mike released the compressed-air-powered parachutes while he was still traveling too fast. The canopies shredded. So instead of floating gently to the ground, he crash-landed after a wild 11-second flight. It was weeks before he was able to walk without aid.
Waldo cajoled me into writing a brief, lighthearted story about the episode. I figured that would be the end of it. But Mike wanted to fly higher, faster, farther. Periodically, Waldo would call me with updates. The project sounded insanely sketchy. And what was the point? Trying to set a land speed record or breaking the sound barrier struck me as goals worth aspiring to. But who cared if somebody who’d christened himself “Mad Mike” went 2,000 or 4,000 feet high in a homemade rocket that was just as likely to kill him as it was to get off the launch pad? Predictably, everything went wrong during the next attempt, when Mike’s latest steam rocket ignited prematurely, before he’d even climbed into the cockpit. A crew member was hurt so badly that part of his leg was later amputated.
In 2017, Mike and Waldo trucked a new rocket deep into the Mojave Desert to a barren stretch of land near the tiny Route 66 outpost of Amboy. Four months later, after several launches were aborted, there was a successful flight (followed by another brutal landing that left Mike pissing into a bottle for three days because he couldn’t make it to the bathroom). This time around, Mike had generated buzz by claiming that he believed the Earth was flat, and he raised money by spinning the flight as an experiment to prove it. For me, the “Research Flat Earth” livery on the rocket was tangible proof that the project was nothing more than a circus sideshow, and I was relieved that I’d stayed away.
Last spring, Waldo called to tell me he’d hatched a crazily ambitious plan: He wanted to send Mike into space. Despite my misgivings, I was intrigued. Felix Baumgartner and Alan Eustace had spent a gazillion dollars and years of preparation on sophisticated equipment and huge engineering teams to ride balloons up 24 and 26 miles, respectively, and then parachute back to terra firma. Waldo intended to use a hydrogen peroxide rocket to allow Mike to breach the so-called Karman line, 62 miles above Earth’s surface. And they planned to do it with a spacecraft built at El Ranchito Rakete.
Mike and Waldo were an odd couple—a bantam rooster with a shock of gray-white hair and a solid redwood with tattooed biceps. I listened skeptically as Waldo sketched out the scenario in the wood-paneled living room of Mike’s small, dark, sparsely furnished house, while four cats slinked shamelessly over the sofa and coffee table. Grinning fiercely, Waldo told me, “I’m going to send this guy into space, and people are going to go, ‘Two fucking hillbillies living in Apple Valley built a spaceship, promoted it themselves, hooked it to a balloon, and launched him into space.’”
But the more Waldo talked, the more credible the project sounded. The calculations to launch a payload into space, whether a satellite or a human being, have been well understood ever since 1944, when a Nazi V-2 designed by Wernher von Braun first left Earth’s atmosphere. The idea was to carry Mike roughly 20 miles aloft in a gargantuan helium balloon before igniting the rocket—a Cold War-era launch system known as a rockoon. After apogee, a reserve supply of helium would be used to inflate a balloon-parachute hybrid called a ballute.
To minimize costs, Waldo had already rigged up a cockpit out of the wingtip tank from a Cold War–era Lockheed F-94 Starfighter, with air provided by a breathing bottle from a similar vintage Boeing B-50 Superfortress bomber. But the ballute alone would cost $300,000, and $2.8 million was budgeted for top-shelf engineering and meteorological support. So the project was more serious than two goofballs chasing an impossible dream, and from a technical standpoint, it seemed feasible, if not entirely plausible. The challenge, I suggested, wasn’t shooting Mike into space. It was getting him back alive. “I think we’re looking at 50-50,” Waldo said blithely.
“Fifty-fifty! That’s reasonable,” Mike said. “I’ve got balls, and I will roll the dice.”
I’d met Mike before, but this was my first extended conversation with him. He was likable, funny, and surprisingly boyish for somebody who was nearly 64. Over the years, he’d worked as a motorcycle racer, race car fabricator, race car mechanic, NASCAR crew chief, and limousine driver. He desperately wanted to be rich and famous and realized that his most marketable asset was his willingness to risk his life, so he risked it often.
Waldo asked me, “You know what will happen if we get him into space and get him down alive?”
“I’ll be the most famous guy on the planet!” Mike crowed before I could reply. “I could run for president. I could run for governor and be a shoo-in. What people need to realize is this is going to be the most-watched event in the history of mankind. More people will watch this than the supposed moon landing.”
I didn’t see it. But I knew a can’t-miss story when I saw one. Sure enough, I approached WIRED and got a green light. My editor there pitched the piece to his colleagues as a classic WIRED chronicle of DIY obsessives who were attempting something that typically requires tens of millions of dollars, scads of engineers, and endless testing. There were concerns about potentially boosting the profile of a flat-Earther—or gratuitously ridiculing one—but we agreed that deft writing and editing could skirt those issues. We all understood that the chances of success were minimal. But we also knew that the boldness of the project, the eccentricities of the central characters, and the challenges of hacking together a homebuilt spacecraft on a shoestring budget would make for a compelling read.
World of Wonder Productions—the television company behind RuPaul’s Drag Race—evidently reached a similar conclusion and signed Mike and Waldo to a Science Channel reality show tentatively titled Homemade Astronauts. Mike decided to undertake another steam-powered launch to generate publicity. This was ideal for WoW, which needed some action to film. I didn’t care about the steam rocket per se, since it had nothing to do with the space project. But if Mike was going to be flying it, then I figured I ought to cover the event.
So the carnival headed back to Amboy last summer. Mounted nearly 15 degrees from vertical on a launch rail that resembled an industrial-grade erector set, the rocket looked like the kind of thing you might have doodled during an especially tedious junior-high earth science class—a slender fuselage bracketed by a needle-shaped nose and four fins at the base. In contrast with a sober NASA launch vehicle, it sported a jaunty purple, orange, and white paint job and signage from sponsors, including a chain of Mexican chicken restaurants, an online dating app (“Dating isn’t rocket science”), and companies offering crane, welding, and window-tinting services.
I spent four days over two weekends in Amboy. The sun was unrelenting, with temperatures often exceeding 110 degrees. You had to shout to be heard over the low-pitched thrum of the generator heating water in the boiler. Waldo, Mike, and their small but intensely loyal and hard-working crew were constantly clambering over the rocket and the launch rig—welding, hammering, grinding, cutting. Something was always going wrong. A tire blew out. A bolt was missing. An O-ring failed. A heater core leaked. A generator wasn’t making enough power. Nobody could find the pylons for the guy wires supporting the launch rail. (Apparently, they’d been stolen by local meth heads.)
The crowd was bigger than I expected—four or five dozen people—and a lot more varied. Friends and family. Rocketry geeks. A rival steam-engine builder. A smattering of reporters and photographers. Assorted flat-Earthers and conspiracy theorists. The mayor/owner of Amboy, along with two of the three full-time residents. Even an itinerant desert rat and amateur snake expert who answered to the name King Daddy Master. The mood was upbeat and anticipatory, not unlike the crowd assembled for a rock music festival, but without the weed. Because Mike never reached the point of climbing into the rocket, I never had to confront the disturbing possibility that he might blow himself up or be pulverized in a crash landing.
After three weekends of failure, Mike and Waldo put the project on hiatus. Back at El Ranchito Rakete, there were arguments over Mike’s redesign of the launch system. Progress ceased when Mike was arrested and jailed for extortion, but work resumed after a benefactor bailed him out. A launch date was set for late February. Instead of Amboy, it would take place in a less remote spot—with cell phone service, hallelujah!—eight miles south of Barstow.
The day before the scheduled launch, I received a text from Waldo with a photo of the rocket already mounted on the launch rail. The plan was to start heating the boiler shortly after dawn Saturday. With any luck, the water pressure in the boiler would reach 350 pounds per square inch by noon, and Mike would be able to fly immediately thereafter. With 90 gallons of water in the tank, the goal was to reach an altitude of one mile.
I headed to Barstow first thing Saturday morning feeling a sense of dread. This was it. No more delays. They were really going to light the candle. I knew that sending Mike into space would be far more dangerous than launching the steam rocket. But that project, while far-fetched, had some legitimate merits, whereas this was purely a PR stunt.
Rain was in the forecast, but the morning dawned sunny and brisk. Incredibly, the team was still dicking around with technical issues when I drove up. Waldo told me a generator was down on power. Also, after a visual inspection, other members of the crew were convinced that the rocket was going to clip the frame of the launch rig on the way up. So they started cutting away metal to provide enough clearance.
Insane—that’s what I was thinking. Who makes jury-rig fixes at the eleventh hour when somebody’s life is on the line? But I didn’t say anything, just as I’d never said anything about the lack of an automatic parachute-deployment system, which seemed like a no-brainer. I knew there were no backup systems. I knew Waldo and several other team members were unhappy with the design of the apparatus Mike had come up with to release the superheated water from the pressure vessel. I knew that the previous three launches had only barely avoided catastrophe. I put my trust in Waldo’s assessment of Mike: “He’s got a lucky star. A lot of things he’s done would have killed somebody else or put him in a wheelchair.”
A handful of newcomers had shown up. I talked to a couple from Fountain Valley whose sons had met Waldo and Mike, and I hung for a bit with a pair of local firefighters who’d seen something about the launch on social media. I asked them if they had any idea how off-the-charts dangerous this was? They didn’t, naturally. To them, this was just a lark. The risks seemed negligible. But I knew how badly things could go wrong. I knew, and I was there just the same.
I stayed away from the crew as the water pressure rose. This was partly out of a sense of self-preservation; at this point, the rocket was effectively a bomb. But I also wanted to keep my distance emotionally, as if that would inoculate me from blame if everything went south. I felt the hollow ache of nervous anticipation as Mike strapped on his helmet and climbed the stairs to the cockpit. Once he’d wriggled inside, Waldo secured the door behind him. When Waldo scampered clear, I repositioned myself behind an EMS van for protection.
I’ve watched plenty of amateur high-power rocket launches over the years, and I know that they come off the rail fast, not with the deliberate majesty of a Saturn V straining against the bounds of gravity. To my surprise, this launch seemed to unfold in slow motion. When the rocket cleared the rail, it shifted to the right, as if it had been hip-checked by an rogue air current. For a sickening moment, I thought it might angle disastrously sideways, like a ballistic missile. But as it gathered speed, the rocket transitioned to vertical, flying straight up on a white plume. Success! After five seconds, the plume disappeared as the last of the steam escaped through the nozzle. Then we waited anxiously for Mike to deploy the parachutes.
My girlfriend is a fanatical Roger Federer fan who dies a little every time he loses a point. We usually watch his matches on our DVR, long after they’ve been played. Yet, even though we’re thousands of miles away, and even though most of the matches are several days old, she can’t resist giving Federer advice in mid-point. “Cross-court!” she’ll shout at the screen. “Down the line!” It drives me crazy. And yet, as I stood among the sagebrush outside Barstow, gazing at the progress of a tiny white speck against the blue sky, I found myself chanting commands to someone who I knew couldn’t hear me. “Chute. Chute. Chute. Chute! Chute! Chute! CHUTE! CHUTE! MIKE, THROW THE GODDAMNED CHUTE!”
No chute. Just a slender projectile hurtling silently to the ground.
The rocket came down about a mile away, near some hills to the north. We couldn’t see clearly how it had landed. So it was possible to indulge in some magical thinking and imagine that maybe, against all odds, Mike might be able to emerge from the cockpit reasonably unscathed. But the crew’s lack of urgency told a different story. Then somebody muttered, “You don’t survive that.”
Although paramedics hustled to the crash, there was no official announcement. There was no official anything. Everybody lingered near the launch pad in a surreal state of shock and confusion. Finally, Waldo and several of Mike’s friends began walking toward the wreckage. I didn’t join them. Instead, I followed longtime crew member Larry Hayes, who was prowling around behind the launch rail. “Mike wanted to build the rocket himself,” he said. He seemed to be speaking to himself as much as me. “That’s why me and Waldo didn’t get too involved in helping him build it.”
“What are you looking for?” I asked him.
The parachute? Turns out that a pair of auxiliary chutes had blown off the rocket as it left the launch rail. Larry and I found them about 20 yards away, a shredded tangle of green-and-purple nylon.
Waldo walked back from the crash, looking grim. A group of spectators gathered around him. Unprompted, Waldo offered a technical appraisal of what had gone wrong. When he paused, a woman asked in a small, breathless voice: “Is he OK?” “No,” Waldo said flatly.
“It’s over,” stalwart team member Danny Bern added.
“We’re going to have to bury him,” Waldo said. “That’s the way daredevils die.”
Later analysis of the wreckage would show that the launch apparatus Mike had put together caused the left side of the nozzle to rip free from the rocket when the water was released. Although some of the steam went through the nozzle, much of it escaped to the left, propelling the rocket to the right as it came off the launch rail. Waldo speculates that the violence of the shift knocked Mike unconscious. The rocket flew for 22 seconds after the last of the steam dissipated, but Mike never responded to radio communications. Two armed but unopened parachutes were still attached to the rocket when it came down.
Mike would have been just as dead if he’d been killed trying to fly to space. But for me, at least, that would have freighted his death with more meaning than dying while freestyling into a crevasse or big-wave surfing. You could argue that Mike knew what he was getting into, and he’d signed the liability waivers to prove it. But for what? Fame and fortune? Nobody gave a shit about this stunt. If he’d succeeded, the flight would have been a scene in my story and a segment in the reality-TV show.
I remember speaking up only once. This was in Amboy. It was late afternoon, and the guys were thrashing to get Mike into the rocket before the last of the light faded. The tension was growing, and so, it seemed to me, was the possibility of a last-minute mistake. I took Mike aside and told him, “Don’t get in that rocket unless you feel comfortable.” As it happened, the rocket wasn’t ready to fly in time. But if it had been, Mike would have ignored my advice. For better or worse, he was totally committed to the project. He must have realized that the launch was a fool’s play, pulling to an inside straight, but it was the only play he had. In the end, he was too brave and tenacious for his own good.
It’s easy to ridicule the Mike Hugheses of the world, have-nothings who gamble their lives on a lottery offering only a microscopic chance of success. Well, of course he got killed. What did he expect? Well, what did we expect? Why didn’t we turn away? Who is more pathetic, the people whose exploits populate YouTube channels filled with videos of appalling crashes and fatal accidents or the people who consume them as entertainment? There is nothing in the world I could have done to prevent Mike from riding a steam rocket to his death, but I didn’t have to be there when it happened. No, I didn’t kill Mike, but I was part of the ecosystem that exploited him, and that’s on me.
I’m sorry, Mike. You deserved better.