Thursday, February 8, 2018

Flat Earther Fails to Launch

Is there anything more ridiculous these days than a flat-earther? I'm not sure, but I think the answer might very well be "no." People have known since ancient times that the Earth is round. It simply is not true that we've only known the Earth was round since the Middle Ages. If you live on any coast, anywhere, you can easily observe this for yourself just like the ancient Greeks did. Just watch a ship as it disappears over the horizon. You'll see that the bottom of the ship disappears first, because the Earth is curved.

Given that, I'm still not sure whether Mike Hughes is a serious flat-earther or just taking advantage of stupid people. For a while now, Hughes has been raising money online from flat-earthers to launch his own rocket. The rocket is powered by steam, which has limited effectiveness as a propellant, and can reach about five hundred miles per hour and sustain that speed for a short period of time. Hughes claims that this is part of a plan to eventually reach outer space, but given the technology he's using it's hard to see how that's going to happen. Especially since, after many delays, his attempted launch completely failed.

In fairness to Mike Hughes, he knows how to build a rocket. He built them for many years under the precepts of classical physics, when he was still a relatively conventional daredevil, which is to say, one who believed the Earth is round. But Saturday marked Hughes’ third aborted launch since he declared himself a flat Earther last year and announced a multipart plan to fly to space by the end of 2018 so he could prove astronauts have been lying about the shape of the planet.

The Washington Post, like many news outlets, covered Hughes’ plan. In retrospect, there was never any chance he’d pull it off. Hughes blamed technical difficulties – possibly a bad O-ring – for his steam-powered rocket’s failure to ignite this weekend in the Mojave Desert. But even if it had, and even if he managed to subsequently rocket-pack himself into space by the end of the year, his mission would have ended at worst in death, and at best in disappointment as he realized what ancient Greeks and schoolchildren already know: The world is round; it has always been round; Mike Hughes will never see its edges.

It began last year, as the daredevil struggled to raise money for a follow-up to his last successful homemade rocket launch in 2012. He gave an interview to a flat Earth group about his newfound skepticism in the planet’s shape, and subsequently raised thousands of dollars from a community that believes we all live, basically, on a big Frisbee. The money was enough for Hughes to build a rocket. The slogan on that rocket, “RESEARCH FLAT EARTH” drew attention not only from this newspaper but from the Associated Press, Fox News, the Guardian, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation . . . truly from every corner of the Earth, pun intended.

Even if Hughes is serious, it's hard to see how a steam-powered rocket could "prove" much of anything. Unlike conventional rocket fuel, steam carries no additional chemical energy along with it so it doesn't burn. It has to be heated using some internal system and shot out the back. If Hughes had a massive power source available to him like a compact nuclear reactor, he might be able to get a steam-based rocket to work just because nuclear reactors can reach such incredibly high temperatures. But an earlier article mentioned that the rocket as designed could maybe reach 2000-some feet.

In perspective, that's not even as high as the world's tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. A rocket that can't even fly as high as the world's tallest elevator is not particularly impressive, and at that height there's really nothing to see as far as "space" is concerned. For a lot less money, Hughes could fly to Dubai and just ride the elevator up. From the top of the building, he'd be able to make better observations of the horizon for as long as he wants. Better still, he could make observations during the flight there. Commercial airliners fly at about 35,000 feet, many times the height that Hughes rocket could possibly reach.

Don't get me wrong, flying through the air in a rocket, even a steam-powered one, is pretty darn cool and would probably be a lot of fun. It just is never going to prove anything about the shape of the Earth, flat or otherwise.

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