LOS ANGELES—It only takes 20 seconds for a daredevil to meet his demise. Maybe less.
On Feb. 22, “Mad” Mike Hughes, 64, got into a handcrafted steel rocket and launched himself into the sky in Barstow, California. Blasting away at hundreds of miles an hour, the rocket climbed to the height of the clouds in a matter of seconds.
Then, in an instant, the rocket hit the ground so hard, it created a four-foot-deep crater.
Waldo Stakes, Mad Mike’s friend and collaborator, said Hughes was killed instantly.
“If I didn’t tell you it was a rocket that hit the ground, you wouldn’t know what you were looking at,” Stakes told The Epoch Times. “It looks like somebody took a bunch of aluminum foil and crumpled it up and threw it in the ground.”
“The forces are beyond what you can grasp. Imagine a plane crash and multiply it by ten. That’s what it’s like.”
Stakes, 64, who is a retired designer of high-speed vehicles, said Hughes should be remembered as the greatest daredevil the United States has ever seen.
“He just wasn’t afraid,” Stakes said. “It wasn’t in his DNA. He’d get into those rockets and say, ‘OK Waldo, I’m ready.’ Just like we were about to drive around the block on a motorcycle.”
‘Help me figure out how to make it not kill me’Stakes first met Hughes in 2012. At the time, Hughes—who already held a Guinness World Record for a 103-foot jump with a stretch limousine—was living in his car with “all his clothes piled in the back,” Stakes recalls.
“He called me and said, ‘Could you help me develop a steam rocket engine for this rocket that I’m building? … I’m going to jump Snake River Canyon in Idaho, try to do what Evel Knievel couldn’t.’”
Hughes was referring to Robert Craig “Evel” Knievel, a famous American daredevil who attempted some 75 ramp-to-ramp jumps in his lifetime. He failed to launch himself across Snake River Canyon in 1974.
“He never tried it again … because he knew better,” Stakes said.
“Usually when people contact me, what they’re really alluding to is me building something for them, which I just don’t have the time for,” he said. “But Mike had built this rocket and he wanted me to come see it.”
Stakes drove to a transmission shop in Riverside where a friend of Hughes’s had given him just enough room in the back to build the rocket.
“What do you think?” Hughes asked him.
“It’s going to kill you,” Stakes said. “The balance is off, how you sit in there is stupid and it’s going to kill you for sure.”
“Could you help me figure out how to make it not kill me?”
“Yeah, I can help you,” Stakes said.
They talked about their plans over lunch, and “Mike had sweet potato fries," Stakes recalled. "He loved sweet potatoes. He’s a southern boy from Oklahoma City.”
Lunch was on Stakes. He soon learned Hughes was running out of money; he'd sold all of his tools already. Stakes told Hughes he could rent a house at his ranch in Apple Valley.
Old Daredevils in a New AgeBefore Stakes retired, he was CEO of Land Speed Research Vehicles (LSRV). He has studied aerodynamics and rocket propulsion practically his whole life.
He began modifying motorcycles to increase their speed at age 14. When he was 19, he designed the body for his first rocket dragster. Over the years, he’s acquired dozens of military rocket engines.
Breaking land-speed records has been a lifelong obsession for him. At one point, he utilized parts from an experimental military rocket plane, nuclear missiles, and a NASA spacecraft to create a Sonic Wind Land Speed Record Vehicle designed to hit a top speed of 2,000 miles per hour.
This endeavor and many others has earned him the nickname Dr. Landspeed.
He describes himself as “a dinosaur … a product of the '50s and the '60s.”
“The millennials nowadays, they don’t care about guys jumping over canyons and stuff,” Stakes said. Now it’s about playing video games, safe and comfortable at home, he said. “This isn’t a world of daredevils … That’s over.”
“I’ve been building land speed car rocket dragsters, jet car dragsters—all of this stuff,” he said. “That’s how Mike got a hold of me.”
Initially, Stakes had his doubts about Hughes’s ability to build a better rocket.
“At first I thought, ‘Ah, he’s never going to do this,’” he said. “But he's very persistent, very hard-working, he's very smart. He has an IQ of 136, he’s not a dumb guy. So if I show him something one time, he gets it. You don’t have to show him again.”
With Stakes’s guidance, over the course of the following year, Hughes managed to “develop some serious thrust. I thought he might just do this thing.”
But little did Hughes know, he wasn’t the only daredevil interested in jumping over Snake River Canyon.
He found himself in the middle of a bidding war that he lost to “Big” Ed Beckley, a 300-pound Texan who billed himself as the “World’s Largest Motorcycle Jumper.”
Beckley spent an estimated $1.6 million dollars to jump the Canyon on the 40th anniversary of Evel Knievel’s attempt to do the same.
“Mike couldn’t put that kind of money up,” Stakes said. “Beckley thought that millions of people would come and watch it on pay-per-view, but this isn’t that world anymore.”
Beckley ultimately cancelled his jump after a deal with Fox Broadcasting to televise it fell through. Stuntman Eddie Braun did make the jump in 2016.
Hughes could have done it though. In 2014, he jumped Arizona’s Winkelman Canyon in a rocket, covering a distance of 1,374 feet, according to the Associated Press—which would have been enough to clear Snake River Canyon.
He consulted Stakes often for advice, and just as often he shrugged off the advice he was given.
“The guy was very difficult to work with because he had a very high IQ and he knows it. So he thinks he’s smarter than you,” Stakes said. “Whatever you tell him, he goes ‘OK,’ he thinks about it, and then he does his own thing.”
“Everything he did was his own idea,” Danny Bern, one of Hughes’ consultants, told The Epoch Times. “I could pose a question to him or an idea, but it was always his decision to either do it or not do it. He was pretty set in his ways.”
Bern, an expert on high-pressure oxygen systems, assisted Hughes on two launches.
A Close CallIn preparation for the 2014 jump over Winkelman Canyon, Stakes told Hughes the ramp for the rocket had to be at least 58 to 60 degrees. Hughes built it at 52 degrees. He wanted to get more distance, Stakes said.
When Hughes spotted a break in the rocket’s tank, he grabbed whatever tools he had on hand—which happened to be a stick welder, also known as a “buzz box.”
“Dude, you can’t weld stainless steel with a buzz box,” Stakes told him. “It’ll either crack it or it just won’t hold.”
“I can’t help it,” Hughes said. “I’m going to … jump here in a couple minutes.”
“I thought, ‘Ah, this dude’s gonna die,’” Stakes recalled. “At any second, it could spring a leak.”
Moments before the launch, Hughes realized there was a problem with his last-minute weld job.
“Now anyone else would have gotten out of there and said, ‘Run, run, run’ and just hit the ground, thinking any second the tank’s going to split … blow up and kill anybody within a couple hundred feet of it,” Stakes said.
Not so with Hughes, who consistently, radically, lived up to his nickname.
“He jumped in the cockpit, he threw the belt around his lap—sorry, I’m getting emotional thinking about it,” Stakes said before taking a moment to pause. “He threw the belt around his lap, told everybody to get out of the pit and he just closed the hatch on himself, and hit the hot button.”
Hughes launched himself, but the rocket hooked to the left and began traveling about 350 miles per hour sideways over the canyon.
Stakes believes the initial launch knocked Hughes unconscious for a few seconds. (Other reports claim he was merely “disoriented.”)
When he pulled the parachute, the canopy was instantly shredded; riddled with holes.
“These things are designed to come out at 100 miles per hour or less, not four times that velocity,” Stakes said. “But somehow it stayed together long enough to get him to the ground … at 60 miles an hour with a loose seatbelt.”
And More Close CallsAs soon as he recovered, Hughes salvaged the tank from the launch and went back to work on his next rocket. Two years later, he was back at Winkelman Canyon, determined to beat his previous record.
This attempt did not pan out as planned.
Trouble ensued when an assistant (whom Stakes declined to name for legal reasons) slipped after inspecting the pressure gauges on the side of the rocket. He fell against the body, pulling the rocket into a slight arch that broke the seal that anchored it.
This caused the rocket to launch itself—instantly.
At that moment, Mike was in the bottom of the pit behind the rocket. The thrust knocked him down and burned his face.
The fins of the projectile severed both the assistant’s feet.
“The rocket took off, climbed vertically into the air, turned around and came down, impacted the ground at 400 miles an hour and turned itself into a steel pancake,” Stakes said.
The assistant’s feet were re-attached at the hospital, but according to Stakes, “a year or so later, infection set in and he had to have one of his legs amputated.” Stakes anticipated a lawsuit from the assistant, “but it never happened. They stayed friends.”
A third jump was planned in Palo Duro Canyon in Texas, but Hughes could only get the rocket to 225 psi (pound-force per square inch). Stakes told him that would not be enough to get him over the canyon.
“You’ll die,” Stakes said. “The rocket will come up the ramp, go right into the canyon, somewhere around 300 miles an hour … and they’ll be looking for you there, in that canyon.”
“I was reading stuff about how Mike chickened out, Mike’s a coward—no, Mike was smart not to die that day.”
Subsequent distance jumps were planned in Amboy, California, in 2017. However, the team’s progress was interrupted by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
Stakes said the Bureau expressed concerns the launch from private property might land on property under its management. After several aborted attempts, Stakes said they felt “dejected.” But then, one of Stakes’ friends threw out an idea.
“He goes, ‘Well, Mike is a flat Earther guy. Why don’t you guys do a vertical launch instead? Just go straight up so you’ve got a better chance of staying on the property and you can tell everybody Mike’s going to get up there and see if the Earth is flat?’ And we all laughed, we just all laughed,” Stakes recalled.
But after Hughes thought about it, he said, “Waldo, could we do that?”
“We’d have to change the inclination of the ramp and modify the rocket, but we could do that,” Stakes replied.
Flat Earth?Hughes’s conviction that the Earth is flat has been called into question by his public relations representative, Darren Shuster.
“I don’t think he believed it,” Shuster told the Los Angeles Times, referring to it as “a PR stunt we dreamed up.”
But Stakes contends that Hughes had spoken to him about his flat Earth theory as early as 2016.
“Mike was a flat Earther at that time,” he said. “He totally believed the Earth was flat.”
“Do I believe the Earth is shaped like a Frisbee? I believe it is,” Hughes told the Associated Press at the time. “Do I know for sure? No. That’s why I want to go up in space.”
He told NBC in 2017, “I don't believe in science. I know about aerodynamics and fluid dynamics and how things move through the area, 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.”
The film’s co-director, Toby Brusseau, told The Epoch Times that Hughes is “this anti-hero you want to succeed, regardless.”
“At surface value, everyone dismisses Mike as some kind of nut,” Brusseau said. “[But] there’s always a bigger picture … I wanted to cover more than the launch and give him a fair viewpoint.”
Brusseau said documenting the launch was intense.
“I’m sitting there sweating and thinking that we could also die,” he said. The rocket had a leak, like with Hughes's 2014 jump.
“I’m trying to put this camera into the cockpit and there’s a leak in the rocket … I’m thinking, Oh my God, this is serious. The enormity and gravity of the situation hit me while I was up there [on the launch ramp] turning that camera on in the cockpit. I realized I could possibly die.”
To the relief of everyone involved, the launch successfully sent Hughes 1,875 feet into the air at a maximum speed of 350 miles per hour.
“The only problem was Mike waited too long to throw the second chute because, from his altitude, he could see four BLM cops ready to take us away in handcuffs,” Stakes said.
“In fact, they had threatened us before we launched, ‘You know, if you land on our land, you’re going to jail. Get ready for it. So don’t let that rocket land on our land.’”
“We’re like ‘Eh, we’ll do everything we can.’”
“I said to myself, ‘Wow, we could have [had] a completely different documentary here,’” Brusseau said.
The Last Launch—‘All the way to space?’Shortly after the 2018 launch, Hughes began to wonder if it was possible to travel even further into the stratosphere.
“Waldo, could you get me all the way to space?” he asked.
“Not with a ground launch,” Stakes told him. “It takes too much fuel; it’d be too dangerous; it’d be a $100 million deal.”
“How can we get to space?” Hughes asked.
“I had to think about that for a while,” Stakes recalled.
That’s when he began to entertain the possibility of using a rockoon to send Hughes 62 miles into the air, where the Earth’s atmosphere meets outer space.
A rockoon is essentially a rocket-balloon combination. A gas-filled balloon carries the rocket about 20 miles into the atmosphere, at which point the rocket is fired through the balloon and climbs another 40 miles.
Stakes said some can travel as high as 100 miles above the Earth.
“After a few months, I came up with a hinged rocket that could do that,” he said. “The math said that it would work.”
They were about halfway through the building process when they were approached by an individual in Barstow, California, who said he would allow them to perform a launch from his property for free.
Stakes remembers telling Hughes, “‘Mike, every time you get in that thing, you roll the dice, man. One of these times, it’s going to come up snake eyes.’”
“No, Waldo,” Hughes said. “I’m going to be famous.”
“He had no fear,” Stakes said. “He didn’t have it. That’s how he was. The guy was absolutely fearless.”
On Feb. 22, the launch began. As the rocket was taking off, one of the chutes deployed too soon and hooked the ramp.
When the rocket jerked to the right, Stakes believes it likely knocked Hughes unconscious by suddenly throwing him to the side.
“The thing made more thrust than we thought it could … it boogied,” he said. “I don’t know how fast it was going. Hundreds of miles an hour, more than three or four hundred miles an hour. It was gone.”
Everybody was surprised at the unexpected speed. Stakes and Bern were yelling at Hughes to deploy the parachutes. They had one-way communication with him, so they couldn't be sure if he heard them or not.
“It got to where I was screaming, ‘Throw the ... chutes, already!’” Stakes recalls. “And he never did. … The rest is history.”
Then the rocket reached apogee—the highest point of a climb—and began a rapid plummet back to earth.
“I pretty well knew the end was there,” Bern said. “It was an unsurvivable situation. There was a lot of hope with the crowd and the spectators, but us crew members [knew] you can’t survive that. There’s no way.”
“Things are going pretty quick in your mind,” he said. “There’s not much time to think … It’s hard to watch somebody you know, [somebody] you just said goodbye to, going into the ground so—pretty tough.”
Stakes and Bern believe Hughes was unconscious at the time of impact.
“He was knocked out,” Stakes said. “The way I view him dying, is he would’ve passed out and he would’ve woke up in front of Jesus. That’s how I look at it.”
“It’s a pretty lonely feeling sitting out there in the middle of nowhere,” Bern said. “You can’t do nothing. We had to cordon off the wreckage and keep everybody away.”
“[Mike and I] had talked about me coming out there and possibly filming,” said Brusseau, the filmmaker. “And selfishly, I’m glad I didn’t come out there and film this launch. I would not have wanted to be there. It’s too much.”
“I had pretty close connections with the crew,” Brusseau said. “I had been keeping in touch … and I wanted to know the second he launched and made it down. I was wishing everybody well and good luck. And then I didn’t hear from [Bern].
“I texted him and said, ‘How’s everything going? Haven’t heard from you.’ He said, ‘Not good. Don’t think he survived.’”
“It just hit me like a hammer,” Brusseau said. “It’s just completely inevitable in the abstract, but sad in reality. You never are prepared for it.”
Stakes said that pioneers like “Mad Mike" have legacies akin to great artists, and they’re not fully appreciated until after they’re gone.
“Say you’re a painter and you’re trying to show people this new way of looking at stuff,” Stakes said. “Everybody ignores you. But once you’re dead, then you’re Monet, you’re Van Gogh, you’re a brilliant guy.”
“Because human beings are competitive and while you’re alive, they still have to compete with you,” he said. “But once you’re dead, you’re just a picture on a wall, you’re just a historical figure. They don’t have to compete with you. So what ends up happening, your artwork is loved.”
Bern said, “These are daredevils, they put their life on the line. They’re stepping over the line. There’s nobody else who does this kind of thing. You’ve got to hand it to them. They’re warriors and brave souls.”
“He wanted to do it,” Bern said. “So it’s all good. It’s all good.”