The countdown to launch creeps closer and there’s still plenty for self-taught rocket scientist “Mad” Mike Hughes to do: Last-second modifications to his vessel. Pick up his flight suit. Leave enough food for his four cats — just in case anything happens.
Hughes is a 61-year-old limo driver who’s spent the last few years building a steam-powered rocket out of salvage parts in his garage. His project has cost him $20,000, which includes Rust-Oleum paint to fancy it up and a motor home he bought on Craigslist that he converted into a ramp.
His first test of the rocket will also be the launch date — Saturday, when he straps into his homemade contraption and attempts to hurtle over the ghost town of Amboy, California. He will travel about a mile at a speed of roughly 500 mph.
“If you’re not scared to death, you’re an idiot,” Hughes said. “It’s scary as hell, but none of us are getting out of this world alive. I like to do extraordinary things that no one else can do, and no one in the history of mankind has designed, built and launched himself in his own rocket. I’m a walking reality show.”
The daredevil-limo driver has been called a little bit of everything over his career — eccentric, quirky, foolhardy. Doesn’t bother him. He believes what he believes, including that the Earth is flat. He knows this thought is a conundrum, given that he’s about to launch himself into the atmosphere.
Down the road, he’s intending to build a rocket that takes him to space, so he can snap a picture and see with his own eyes.
“I don’t believe in science,” said Hughes, whose main sponsor for the rocket is Research Flat Earth. “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.”
This will actually be the second time he’s constructed and launched a rocket. He jumped on a private property in Winkelman, Arizona, on Jan. 30, 2014, and traveled 1,374 feet. He collapsed after that landing — the G-forces taking a toll — and needed three days to recover.
That distance, though, would’ve been enough to clear the Snake River Canyon, which is a jump daredevil Evel Knievel made famous when he failed to clear it during his attempt in 1974. Stuntman Eddie Braun did successfully zoom over the canyon — using Knievel’s original blueprints — in September 2016.
Just don’t mention Knievel around Hughes. He’s not a fan.
“He was an average stunt guy,” said Hughes, a former motorcycle racer. “He stole his look from Elvis.”
Hughes constructed his latest rocket at the “Rocket Ranch” in Apple Valley, California. It’s a five-acre property he leases from Waldo Stakes, the CEO of Land Speed Research Vehicles, who’s currently working on a project to make a car travel 2,000 mph.
Their relationship formed a few years ago when Hughes approached Stakes about building a rocket. Stakes receives plenty of these sorts of requests, but this one stood out because Hughes was building it himself.
“Nothing is out of reach,” Stakes said. “Anything can be done. You just have to put enough money, time and thought into it.”
Here’s the thing: Hughes doesn’t make all that much money — $15 per hour as a limo driver, plus tips. That’s why he’s scrounged for parts, finding the aluminum for his rocket in metal shops and constructing the rocket nozzle out of an aircraft air filter. He gave it a good varnish of cheap paint, and his launch pad is attached to a motor home he bought for $1,500.
“I want to inspire others, and you have to do something incredible to get anybody’s attention,” Hughes said.
The location of the jump will be Amboy, a ghost town in the Mojave Desert and along historic Route 66. The fictional town of Radiator Springs in the Disney movie “Cars” was loosely based on Amboy.
Hughes got permission from the town’s owner, Albert Okura, who purchased the rights to Amboy in 2005 for $435,000. The launch will take place on an air strip next to a dilapidated hangar.
“It is absolutely the most wacky promotional proposal I have had since I purchased the entire town in 2005,” said Okura, who’s also the founder of the Juan Pollo restaurant chain. “He is a true daredevil and I want to be part of it.”
On the morning of the launch, Hughes will heat about 70 gallons of water in a stainless steel tank and then blast off between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. He plans to go about a mile — reaching an altitude of about 1,800 feet — before pulling two parachutes. They’re discouraging fans, safety issues, but it will be televised on his YouTube channel. He said he’s been in contact with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Bureau of Land Management.
Following his jump, he said he’s going to announce his plans to leap into the race for governor of California. No joke.
His future plans include an excursion into space. He and Stakes have already brainstormed on a “Rockoon,” which is a rocket that, rather than being immediately ignited while on the ground, is carried into the atmosphere by a gas-filled balloon, then separated from the balloon and lit. This rocket will take Hughes about 68 miles up.
First things first — this jump over a ghost town. He will be tinkering with his rocket right up to takeoff.
“A guy who builds his own rocket in his garage, about to jump a mile is pretty cool,” Hughes said. “It’s the most interesting human-interest story in the world.”