DIY Rockets, Daredevils, and the Tragedy of Mad Mike Hughes

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.

Roy’s Motel & Café, the only retail establishment in Amboy (population: 4) on famous Route 66.Photograph: Andrew Hetherington

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