Mad Mike: Foolish Road

A view of Earth's curvature from space

On Sunday, an American thrill-seeker named Mike Hughes died after attempting to launch himself to an altitude of 5,000 feet on a homemade steam-powered rocket. A video of the accident is available because a crew of the Science Channel filmed the incident as part of a programme called ‘Homemade Astronauts’. On February 23, Science Channel tweeted condolences to his loved ones, and said Hughes had died trying to fulfil his dream. But in fact he had died for no reason at all.

Hughes believed Earth was flat and had hoped to ‘prove’ it by flying himself to space, which makes Science Channel’s conduct irresponsible if not entirely reckless. I assume here that the Science Channel knows Earth is an oblate spheroid in shape as well as knows how such knowledge was obtained. But it still decided to capitalise on the ignorance of another person, presumably in the names of objectivity and balance, and let them put themselves in danger (with airtime on the Science Channel as an incentive).

For his part, Hughes wasn’t very smart either: aside from thinking Earth is flat, he could never have proven, or disproven, his claim by flying to 5,000 feet. Millions of people routinely fly on airplanes that cruise at 35,000 feet and have access to windows. Even at this altitude, Earth’s curvature is not apparent because the field of view is not wide enough. Hughes likely would have had some success (or failure, depending on your PoV) if he had been able to reach, say, 40,000 feet on a cloud-free day.

But even then, the Kármán line – the region beyond which is denoted space – lies 328,000 feet up. So by flying to a height of 5,000 feet, Hughes was never going to be an astronaut in any sense of the term nor was he going to learn anything new, except of course finding new reasons to persist with his ignorance. On the other hand, a TV channel called ‘Science’ quite likely knew all this and let Hughes carry on anyway – instead of, say, taking him to a beach and asking him to watch ships rise as if from under the horizon.