Though the answer might seem obvious to the vast majority of globe-dwellers, a small but committed movement of conspiracy theorists believes Earth is not a sphere but a great, celestial Frisbee contained within a dome. I spent years within this movement while reporting my book Off The Edge: Flat Earthers, Conspiracy Culture, and Why People Will Believe Anything. At first I believed the theory to be weird, even occasionally funny. Then in February 2020, it turned deadly serious. That month, Mike Hughes died while trying to ride his homemade rocket thousands of feet into the atmosphere. He was among a collective of conspiracy theorists pushing their inquiries to life-threatening extremes.
The rocket took off like a punctured balloon, wobbly and erratic. A jagged trail of steam traced the ship’s path across the sky, up thousands of feet above the California desert. For a moment, the rocket seemed to hover, oblivious to gravity.
Then the inevitable descent. To onlookers on the ground, the ship and the man inside it were a blur of black.
“Come on, parachute,” one watcher murmured anxiously.
“Pull it, Mike,” another man shouted. But the parachutes that had bloomed above Mike Hughes on his previous death-defying rocket launches were nowhere to be seen. “Pull it! Pull it! Oh God.”
Hughes’s rocket crashed into the dust with absolute finality. There was no need to call an ambulance.
Until that moment, Hughes had been one of the most famous living Flat Earthers. He had earned his fame by taking the theory to its logical conclusion. He was going to build a rocket ship, blast into Earth’s upper reaches, and see for his own eyes whether the horizon was flat or curved. “This space launch is to prove or disprove the Flat Earth,” he told me in spring 2019.
I thought it was a terrible idea. I suggested, much too gently, that it was a terrible idea. I thought it was such a terrible idea that I wrote a chapter about Hughes and the cadre of conspiracy theorists attempting dangerous stunts to prove their beliefs. I titled the chapter “Someone Is Going to Die for No Reason.” Then I dropped the matter and never raised it to him again. Hughes was 64 at the time and didn’t need my advice, I reasoned. Besides, I doubted he’d really attempt the launch. For the past year, he’d notified me of various complications: parachute malfunctions and unforeseen weather that delayed his project. I began to suspect he was searching for excuses, avoiding a dangerous stunt that would force him to confront the curved horizon. I was wrong about his convictions. On Feb. 22, 2020, in a gray stretch of desert, Hughes joined the growing ranks of conspiracy-theory casualties, and I’ve had to live with that scrapped chapter title on my conscience ever since.
In the mid-1840s, when Samuel Rowbotham popularized Flat Earth as a “zetetic” science, he preached that zetetics should believe only what they could personally observe. Rowbotham was a fraud, routinely borrowing and often even misrepresenting real scientists’ work when it suited him. But Hughes, with his insistence on seeing the world for himself, was one of the truest zetetics I’ve ever known.
Hughes had an advantage that most other would-be zetetic Flat Earthers lacked: he knew how to build a rocket and had no fear of dangerous stunts. Born to a race-car hobbyist in 1956, Hughes spent much of his youth traveling the county-fair circuit, where his father competed in dirt-track races. Oklahoma City was home, but Hughes and his family spent so much time traveling from state to state, speedway to speedway, that life began to feel like a long racing circuit of its own. “It’s just consuming. It consumes your life,” Hughes wrote of his father’s hobby in his self-published autobiography. “You got no time for anything else and it just eats at relationships like termites to wood.”
When his pit-crew gigs dried up like his racing career, Hughes started driving a limousine, and chasing thrills as a freelance stuntman on the side. While trying to outdo a famous stunt by daredevil Evel Knievel, Hughes began tinkering with homemade rockets, which could propel him on long horizontal jumps off ramps. One stunt led to the next. If he could launch across a river, he thought, then perhaps he could break the record for vertical height in a homemade rocket. He toppled that record, then broke his own record on a subsequent launch, inching upward each time until his dreams became a list of altitudes.
“I don’t believe in science,” he told reporters in November 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.”
But there is a difference. A science fiction author can save a character from certain death with a few twists of plot. Hughes was working with the indifferent mathematical fact of gravity. And as early as a March 2018 launch — Hughes’s first after coming out as a Flat Earther— that difference very nearly killed him.
Hughes had intended the launch to take him only eighteen hundred feet in the air, much too low to observe the planet’s curvature. Still, he managed to fundraise more than $7,000 online from Flat Earthers — and from people who thought his project was a big joke. They almost funded a tragedy. Short on cash, Hughes built the rocket in his garage and converted an old mobile home into a launch ramp. Then he hauled the whole thing to Amboy, a windswept California ghost town with a history of bad karma: stories of hauntings and occult rituals and bloody motel rooms. Other towns with legitimate governments had turned Hughes away, unwilling to deal with the headache of a potential rocket catastrophe. But Amboy, a popular filming location for horror movies, was virtually a theme park for destruction, and its owner welcomed Hughes for what was nearly another nightmare.
As he approached his rocket (emblazoned with research flat earth), Hughes noticed a hissing noise, like an air mattress deflating. The noise was a vapor leak, but after the trip to Amboy and the makeshift launch-ramp assembly, no one knew how long the rocket had been compromised, which would determine how dangerous it would be. “We don’t know if it’s been going for five minutes or five hours,” Hughes told me. A friend who had helped with his rocket construction urged him to wait, telling him they could fix the problem, if Hughes was willing to postpone.
“I said ‘You know what, I’m not waiting any longer. I got in, and I did it,” Hughes told me. His secondhand parachutes were 23 and 21 years old. “I didn’t even know if they were going to work. They were all I could afford.”
One of the chutes failed on the way down, and Hughes slammed into the earth, barely clinging to consciousness. “It was pretty ugly,” he said. “I could have died.” When he recovered from the hard landing, Hughes announced his new plans to prove Flat Earth by flying to outer space in a “rockoon,” a homemade rocket attached to weather balloons that would carry it upward after the rocket fuel burned out. He would build the rockoon in his garage, ride it 68 miles above Earth’s surface, and, before gravity reclaimed him and his parachutes deployed, take a photograph of the world. It was a breathtakingly dangerous stunt, but everyone who knew Hughes said there was no talking him out of it. “He had an IQ of 136. He’s very smart,” Waldo Stakes, Hughes’s close friend who had helped him build his rockets, told me, “but he’s very hardheaded . . . Once he’s made his mind up about something, he’ll just continue no matter what. He’ll just do it.”
Just do it, death be damned, is a popular sentiment among Flat Earth’s most extreme zetetics. At the 2019 Flat Earth International Conference, I found myself seated behind a man named Bobby Hartley, who wore a T-shirt advertising a 2025 trip to fabled lands beyond Antarctica.
The frozen continent often conjures an air of foreboding among Flat Earthers. Like most popular Flat Earth models, including Rowbotham’s, argue that Antarctica extends like an icy ring around the pancake planet, keeping all its oceans in check. Common variations on this claim include a theory that Antarctica’s most distant edge touches the base of a dome that encloses Earth and that the international treaties against colonizing Antarctica are actually part of a nefarious scheme to prevent people from seeing the dome. This subset of believers claims that Antarctica is highly militarized and that unauthorized explorers will eventually hit a kind of polar Area 51, defended by armies of the New World Order.
There are dissenters within the Flat Earth world, of course. A group called the Infinite Plane Society suggests that Antarctica extends out to eternity, a universe of ice to cradle our little blue oasis. Hartley told me he thought another world existed beyond the ice wall, and that other people likely already lived in this distant land. “I just got into Flat Earth about a year ago, but I’m obsessed with this land beyond Antarctica. I want to go there so bad,” Hartley told me. He seemed like a pleasant guy, and our conversation felt almost normal, until he divulged, laughingly, that the trip was something of a suicide mission. “Of course, we all might die. I’m not married. I have no kids.”
It was a startling comment from someone I’d just met 30 seconds earlier, and I asked him whether he was serious. Apparently so.
“There is about a five percent chance of me making it. Out of that five percent chance of making it, I would say a one percent chance of ever coming back. It would almost be a one-way trip.” Those odds would be worth it, even to spend 24 hours in the land beyond the ice, he said. I made some polite noises, with what I hoped was a neutral expression.
I’ll probably never be any good talking death wishes with strangers, but a couple years in this scene had made me better at it. This was the second time that year, for example, that I’d spoken with a Flat Earther who had pitched me on a likely deadly trip to the lands beyond Antarctica. Months earlier, I’d spoken with Michael Marshalek, a friend of Mike Hughes, who was planning his own trip across the ice.
“Mad Mike is going up, and I’ll be headed south,” Marshalek told me. He was out to prove Flat Earth by trekking as far as Antarctica would take him. For Marshalek, all specicies of Earth’s shape were under consideration until he reached its edge. “I think it’s infinite until proven otherwise,” he said. “If there’s a dome, which many Flat Earthers believe in, I myself want to go out there and see that, take a chunk of the dome.”
Like Hughes, Marshalek was making steady, even worrying progress toward setting off on his mission. A tech worker for a major New York City bank, he already had most of the funds saved for his planned expedition by the time we spoke in May 2019. He intended to reach the South Pole (or whatever’s out there) by snowkiting, a technique that involves riding skis while clinging to a large kite or sail that captures the wind. The plan had obvious challenges. Snowkiting is an extreme sport, one that leaves a rider at the mercy of sudden winds and rocky terrains — two conditions Antarctica has in frightening abundance. Snowkiting also prioritizes speed over distance. The world’s longest and most challenging snowkite race is the Ragnarok, a scrupulously supervised 100-kilometer race in Norway each year. Antarctica, meanwhile, is merciless and more than 2,381 miles (or 3,831 kilometers) across. Famed polar explorer Børge Ousland has used a kite and skis to cross parts of the continent, but he also offset them with grueling hikes in parts of the expedition where snowkiting would be, in his own words, “certain death.”
And Ousland knew where he was going. He knew how much food to pack, how many days he could survive in the frozen wild before sending out an SOS. Marshalek, with his philosophy of “infinite until proven otherwise,” would not be setting out with the same luxuries. If he planned to survive a journey that could be infinite, I asked him, wouldn’t he eventually need to turn around and come home? How would he know when that was necessary? Marshalek promised to reveal his full itinerary in due time. When he did, he expected it would strike a blow against “edge-ophobes,” his term for Flat Earthers who don’t seek the planet’s outer limits. He accused edge-ophobes of being afraid to explore, caught in a gridlock of excuses about why they can’t simply traverse Antarctica. “They’re stuck in debates all the time,” he said. “They say, ‘You can’t burn fuel, there’s treaties, it’s too cold.’ They’re all excuses.”
Here’s another excuse, for any Flat Earthers reading: anyone trying to sell you a ticket for a Flat Earth–oriented Antarctic expedition is probably trying to scam you. I’ve stumbled upon two of these grifts without really trying.
In March 2017, someone who called himself John Bramha began registering social media accounts and buddying up with Flat Earthers online. Bramha claimed to be part of the elite group that enforced Antarctica’s boundaries, protecting it from intruders. He and a handful of others from this secret police force had turned rogue aftr discovering the wonders that lay at the earth’s edge, and now he was leading expeditions to the end of the world to share the truth of what lay beyond. For his trouble, of course, he needed funding. Specifically $1 million in hard-to-track Bitcoin payments. “You might think that’s a lot of money, but it’s just the cost of 10 Tesla Model S cars,” he told viewers in a YouTube clip. “People spend, collectively, way more than this on personal luxuries.” He planned to earn his million by selling 10 seats on his expedition for $100,000 each. He never showed his face in his videos, and the avatar he used on Facebook and Twitter had been stolen from a stock-image website.
By the way, Bramha said, the $100,000 trip would cure his customers of cancer. The dome surrounding Flat Earth was actually a wall of pure energy that “cures you instantly of anything you might be suffering from, medically,” he claimed on YouTube. He shared a supposed picture of said energy wall, which looked like a pretty standard glacier.
For a group that doesn’t believe in gravity or the moon, Flat Earthers were remarkably quick to support Bramha. At least one popular Flat Earth YouTube channel made a video vouching for the shadowy Antarctican, without ever meeting him. Flat Earthers tweeted that they’d filled out applications for Bramha’s $100,000 excursion, and by summer 2017 Bramha claimed (albeit dubiously) that he’d sold six tickets. Of those alleged customers, two were counting on the trip to save their lives. “We have two persons on board who are suffering from Cancer and this expedition will heal them,” Bramha wrote on Facebook.
The expedition was scheduled for November 2017, at which point (of course) Bramha vanished from the internet, taking with him whatever money he’d swindled from the desperate. The popular Flat Earth YouTube channel that had vouched for him uploaded a new video, this time claiming Bramha’s scam was evidence of a conspiracy to make Flat Earthers look bad. As it turned out, the new video noted, Bramha’s picture of the “pure energy” glacier had been taken by a professional photojournalist focused on the environment and climate change. The photojournalist had won grants from scientific institutions, including NASA. The connection to NASA, that great Flat Earth bogeyman, was enough for Flat Earthers to accuse Bramha of being a “big science” saboteur. To them, Flat Earth theory was still vindicated, in its way: someone wanted to suppress its believers.
Remarkably, the following year, someone else tried a similar stunt. A company called Over the Poles offered a onetime flight over part of Antarctica starting at $11,900. The trip is technically possible, although rarely attempted, due to the danger involved. One notorious 1979 Antarctic sightseeing flight left all 257 passengers and crew dead after it crashed into a mountain in whiteout conditions. Over the Poles said it was going much farther inland than that deadly crash site and, while it did not market exclusively to Flat Earthers, it acknowledged the conspiracy movement on its website. (John Bramha and Over the Poles did not return requests for comment.)
Michael Marshaek told me he bought a ticket in the brief months that Over the Poles operated its website. Then, like Bramha’s venture before it, the company and all its affliates vanished from the internet, leaving people holding expensive tickets to nowhere. Yet as vicious as the Antarctica scams were to their victims, the situation could have been worse: the ice wall–curious crowd could have taken an ill-planned trip to the South Pole and died. They would all have joined the growing ranks of conspiracy theorists committing real-world harm in an effort to prove their beliefs.
From OFF THE EDGE: Flat Earthers, Conspiracy Culture, and Why People Will Believe Anything by Kelly Weill. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. Copyright © 2022 by Kelly Weill. All rights reserved.
From Rolling Stone US