There are reasons why it’s a bad idea to try to become a DIY astronaut. Space, as the saying goes, is hard. When NASA, SpaceX, or the ESA plans a launch, they deploy dedicated teams of engineers and technicians to pour over every inch of the preflight rocket in an attempt to ensure that nothing goes wrong. Despite these precautions, things do go wrong. Sometimes, as with Boeing’s Starliner, the team on the ground is able to correct for these issues during the mission. Sometimes they aren’t. When that happens, the best result is typically the loss of an incredibly valuable mission or spacecraft. At worst, multiple people lose their lives.
If you came of age at certain times in America, memories of the Apollo 1, Challenger, and Columbia disasters may be the first memory of world events that you possess. We remember these because they demonstrate how human error (and sometimes hubris) can be lethal and what the consequences of that hubris can be for the people left behind on the ground.
Some folks fail to internalize the message. Flat-Earther “Mad” Mike Hughes died over the weekend when his homemade rocket slammed into the desert. From the footage of the rocket launch captured by journalist Justin Chapman, it looks as though the parachute intended to slow the rocket’s fall was torn away at launch. The steam-powered rocket flew as high as propulsion could take it — and then returned to Earth at terminal velocity, thanks to that pesky force of nature known as gravity. We last covered Mike back in 2018, when the prominent Flat-Earther declared his intent to fire a homemade rocket into the sky to prove the Earth is flat. (NOTE: This link shows both the launch of his rocket and its unintended high-deceleration lithobraking experiment. If watching someone die in an impact on-camera bothers you, don’t watch it.)
One of the known effects of gravity, since we’re chatting about it, is that it naturally rounds objects above a certain size and density. A single asteroid might theoretically be of any shape, but as planetesimals accrete to each other, the object begins to assume hydrostatic equilibrium and becomes rounded under its own gravity. Other important features in planetary geology, like a differentiated interior (core, mantle crust) are associated with hydrostatic equilibrium, though this is not absolute. The smallest world known to be in hydrostatic equilibrium with a differentiated internal structure is Ceres, at 945km. This post on the Astronomy Stack Exchange board notes that perfect hydrostatic equilibrium is a spherical cow, but it’s a very important characteristic that defines a planet, including the one we stand on.
“Mad” Mike didn’t believe in gravity. Most Flat-Earthers don’t. “Objects simply fall,” reads the Flat Earth website, because the best way to demonstrate scientific validity is to declare your conclusion before giving any of the data that validate it. It continues, “Some attempt to explain this with use of mechanics like electromagnetism, density, or pressure. Others make use of traditional mathematics, such as the infinite plane model, and others a new look at the problem – such as the non-euclidean model.”
Pro Tip: If you cannot create a scientific model of a phenomenon that accounts for all observed characteristics of that phenomenon and convinces your fellow “scientists” (as well as actual scientists), you haven’t actually explained anything to anyone.
In this case, Mad Mike wanted to build a steam-powered rocket to loft him high enough into the air to prove the Earth was flat, discounting the fact that, well, it isn’t, based on the combined scientific observations of everyone from Eratosthenes (276 BC – 195/194 BC) to the eyes-on observation of astronauts today. That’s not a problem for Flat-Earthers, because they generally either don’t believe in outer space or don’t believe we’ve traveled to it. The reason they don’t believe this is because the data coming back from NASA, the ESA, Russia, and any other nation capable of putting a satellite in orbit doesn’t support their theory that the Earth is flat.
When you explain that this is the literal definition of confirmation bias, you’ll get a lot of ranting about conspiracies and the importance of doing the science for yourself. While the idea of confirming the opinion of learned people over the past 2,000 years is appealing on some levels, the concept presupposes that the person doing the proving has a basic grasp of geometry, logic, and the scientific method. The fact that there are a handful of Flat-Earthers with a significant level of achieved education says more about how humans can be quite intelligent and still fall prey to remarkably stupid theories than it does about the accuracy of the flat Earth model.
Some people may feel I’m being a bit harsh. They are correct. I won’t even pretend otherwise. When you climb aboard a homemade rocket because you intend to prove long-established and objectively proven facts aren’t true, you are, at best, a moron. When you do it repeatedly and in complete rejection of observation and research conducted by thousands of people over millennia you are an arrogant moron who believes his own failure to understand the reasons why he’s wrong means those reasons are false. People have a right to be morons. They don’t have a right to be remembered as heroic or respected figures who defied the scientific status quo.
“‘I don’t believe in science,” said Hughes back in 2017. “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.’”
In science fiction, Asgard beaming technology, Star Trek transporters, the Force, an Iron Man suit, a passing Voltron Lion, Moya, or the inexplicable appearance of Gully Foyle may save the day. In science, not having a parachute attached to a rocket means ballistic reentry, which means death.
The astronauts who have given their lives in the pursuit of human understanding of our universe are heroes who tried to push back the frontiers of human understanding. Mike Hughes was a crackpot too invested in his own conspiracy theories to recognize reality when it stared him in the face. I genuinely regret the impact on his family and hope his mistakes serve as a warning to others.
Here endeth the lesson.
Top image credit: Justin Chapman/video still