Eulogy for a Flat Earth Rocketman
This Won't be Nice, but it Sounds Meaner than it Is.
A Rather Lengthy but Important Foreword: I am not writing this to dunk on Flat Earthers or to celebrate the death of someone who was (debatably) part of their movement. This is not blaming the victim for his own death. This is bigger than those petty concerns.
Flat Eartherism (for want of a better term) is, at its core, fiercely anti-intellectual and anti-expert, for reasons none of them have ever been able to satisfactorily explain. So, in order to combat it, I can't talk about Eratosthenes estimating the radius and circumference of the earth within seven miles polar and seventy equatorial in 276 BCE. I can't do complicated math, figures, show them NASA footage or anything like that. They don't want to hear from me. They want to do science on their own.
And I can find it in my heart to forgive them for doing science backwards, for trying to logic their way into being right instead of following experimental data, wherever it may lead (spoiler alert, it leads to some pretty rad places).
But now that they've tried and someone has died, I feel like it's important for experts to now nudge in and say "Look, we've let you alone to do your own thing, and this happened. Here's why, so you don't do that again." Because if I know anything about Flat Earthers (and unfortunately, I do), they are going to try again. It's like sex ed. They're going to do it, so I might as well give them the information to do it better. I am not going to teach them a bunch of engineering courses, for starters because I'm wildly unqualified to do so, but also because teachers need the money and while we're stuck in this late capitalist nightmare, we should help each other out. Go support your teachers.
Mike Hughes is dead.
That's uncontroversially true, but with it comes so much baggage. Why? Well, because he was an amateur rocketeer and someone who has, at the very least, flirted with Flat Eartherism. All of his rocket designs have included ad stickers reading things like "research flat earth," but we shouldn't necessarily take that as proof he's a flat earther, because his last rocket also had a breathtakingly awful ad for a dating website. Advertising is just advertising. But the flat earthers claim him, because he said all the things and in exchange, they kept paying for his rockets.
So what happened?
First, we need to talk about what was supposed to happen. In this flight, Hughes was meant to fly to an apogee of 5,000 feet (less than one mile down, only about 61 to go! No, Sophie, be nice...) and a weather balloon would inflate and lift the vehicle to the Karman line, 100 km or 62 miles in altitude. It's unclear what was meant to happen next, but given the shape of the vehicle and the parachute recovery mechanism, one assumes that the balloon would burst at altitude, the vehicle would fall back to earth, it looks like it would be capable of lift, with which the pilot would be able to bleed off speed until parachute deployment, coming in for a nice, soft parachute-assisted landing.
What could have happened: Had this accident not occurred, Mike would have reached an apogee of about 5,000 feet, waved at a cessna on an introductory flight, and deployed the balloon. Which would not have taken him to new heights never before attained by flat earthers, but would instead be trailing behind him as he landed, like a child riding in an elevator. You can ride a balloon to very high altitudes. It's definitely doable. Felix Baumgartener did. But here's the thing: That would be a very big balloon. And it requires a LOT of hydrogen gas (helium is not economically viable for small, non-corporate projects and anyway, be a buddy. There's a helium shortage), which at any point in this journey is a massive explosion hazard. So? It's a rocket. The whole thing is an explosion hazard. Well, not Mike's. Mike used pressurized steam to propel his rocket. Now, there are big problems with this, but they're not so big that it wouldn't fly. It's mostly fuel efficiency, fuel storage, and maybe slosh. If too much fuel condensed. And that would happen. It's just basic thermodynamics. Pressure drops, like shooting massive volumes of steam out of your tank exceedingly quickly, lower the overall energy (pressure and temperature) of the system, and gas is an energetic state of matter. If you lower the energy of the system below the dew point of the medium, it condenses. The steam engine is likely losing a lot of efficiency and suffering a significant weight penalty from having its fuel condense into water.
I was unable to find anything about the systems in the rocket, so it might be that there was a heater keeping the steam gaseous in spite of pressure and temperature drops, causing the fuel to condense in the tank and being useless. I rather doubt a heater of sufficient power to keep the steam in the gas phase was available, so what you end up doing is burning through your fuel in a matter of seconds and riding the thrust to apogee. Put a pin in that one.
Okay, so what the shit actually happened? An analysis of the launch video can only get us so far, and accident investigations take a LONG time so it's unlikely we'll know for sure for a while yet, but what is documented is this: on launch, the (main?) recovery parachute deployed, which it goes without saying was not supposed to happen, and was unable to cope with the aerodynamic loading of being open during launch and it detached before the vehicle cleared the rail. This is bad, but like I said, the vehicle looks like it could glide pretty well to a horizontal landing, if Mike were an experienced pilot or had a high performance rating or a glider cert. Or had test pilot experience. Or had test pilot training. Or any business being in that cockpit at all. But alas, we live in the dumbest timeline. So no. To all of it. The story I'm hearing from his camp is he lost consciousness, a condition called G-LOC (g force induced loss of consciousness). This happens when the human body experiences too much acceleration in any direction, and it causes blood to pool in places that are not the brain and the person experiencing those Gs passes out.
Let's circle back to burning through all of your reaction mass before it cools and condenses and turns into inert, heavy, sloshy water in your fuel tanks. This is a big problem with steam. So the most economical option is a one to two second burn-through of all your fuel to get all the acceleration the vehicle needs for the flight. The burn in the video looks like it lasted a half second. So our final acceleration, a, is equal to Δv/Δt, which we can take the Greek out of it and say that Δv/Δt = (v2-v1)/(t2-t1). So in this case, v1 and t1 are both zero. T2 is 0.5. and v2 has to equal something that zeroes out at 5,000 feet (that's what apogee is, kids). So a=(v2-0)/(0.5-0), or simply v2/0.5. Lemme help you out with that and just say that a=2*v2 in this case. Acceleration due to gravity (stay with me FE bros, the math is experimentally verified, regardless of what you are gearing up to say) is 32 ft/s/s, just very roughly, you'd need a v2 of 155.75 ft/s to coast to an apogee of 5,000 feet, losing 32 ft/s every second. Now, this doesn't take into account wind resistance, so it's actually going to be more than this, but this is a rough calculation. So returning to our calculation, it's (155.75-0)/(0.5-0), and that equals 311.5 ft/s/Δt. Which, if you're really clever, you can calculate is almost TEN FUCKING GS (311.5 ft/s/s divided by 32 ft/s/s, one g at earth's surface). Hooooooooooooly wow. I mean... People have stayed conscious through more than that, but not without significant training and experience. So he pulled 9.734 Gs with no training on launch and so (obviously) passed out. This (obviously) also ripped his parachute off. So now he's unconscious and without parachute. The next ten seconds are... predictable, if very sad. The vehicle reaches its apogee, barely in a cloud bottom (pretty good measure of about where 5,000 feet is), and then slams into the ground.
So where was the mistake? There was no failsafe. No one planned for Mike to pass out. No one counted on him pulling ten Gs on launch.
When you're using steam, you don't have the luxury of a long burn, so you have to accept the high acceleration profile. Which means you have to accept G-LOC as an elevated risk. If you climb into an ostensible spacecraft or even an aircraft with a high acceleration profile and you don't have a G-LOC contingency, you're climbing into a coffin, and that's just the way of things.
Now, as it turns out, there's ways to combat G-LOC. These are things you have to know to be an aerobatic pilot. Or, if learning new skills and abilities isn't your speed, it's pretty easy to make an automated backup to fire independently in case of G-LOC. You may need to rework your weight and balance calculations, but you'll live to be annoyed by a teensy bit of extra math another day. It's a matter of a speedometer, an altimeter, and a relay.
This, boys and boys (and it is, almost entirely, boys. Except for Patricia Steere and a handful of others, but you guys are *really* gross about her), is a simplified diagram of a pushbutton initiated parachute deployment mechanism. It's very simple. When you push the button, power from the main bus (the short and long lines dangling at the bottom) completes the circuit, triggering an explosive, which kicks the parachute out into the free flow.
Obviously, this won't work if there's no one around to push the button. So you need a backup. There are two ways you can do this. You can do it with a timer, or you can do it with an altimeter, a speedometer, a relay, and a very simple logic circuit.
One would have to program the logic circuit to transmit a signal only if speed and altitude readings meet certain thresholds, and then finally, the relay would open the backup chute circuit if the primary circuit closes. The effect would be that this backup chute only fires if you're below deployment altitude, moving faster than a deployed chute would allow and the primary chute has not been popped. It's even got an independent backup power supply. Now, granted, you'll want to pull the circuit breaker on that E-chute after you confirm main chute deployment. Just in case numbers are off or something about the logic circuit causes the e-chute to fire anyway... But that's a procedures thing, and not a huge deal. It's a simple solution. Classy. Effective. Mike Hughes might still be alive if he'd had one.
Maybe not, though. I've also heard that the vehicle got kinda scraped and rubbed against the rails.
Did... Did nobody think "maybe we should scrub for today, since we just banged up our very precise instrument of almost certain death"? Who was the flight director? Who was range safety? Who was the relatively detached voice saying "no, this is a bad idea, let's triple check this thing and not fly unless everything is perfect"? Because professionals have that.
And here's the thing. I'm not dunking on you, FE bois, for being irresponsible ignoramuses (ignorami?) who got their friend killed. No one's innocent of this, but no one's all the way guilty. And anyway, that kind of blame game isn't helpful. So what I'm saying is this: take the opportunity to allow a modicum of expertise into your worldview. You can't believe your way to space, and you can't observe your way there. You have to math and science your way to space. If you want to see the... whatever you think is up there, you have to get better at this. Which means listening to the people who already know. And I know you don't trust me. I'm a Jewish rocket engineer. I'd be guarding the ice wall, if I could make my flesh suit cover all of my lizard skin... No. No, I promised I'd be nice, and g-ddammit, I'm going to be nice.
Mike didn't need to die. He died because he rode a ridiculously unsafe vehicle at unsafe speeds without proper failsafe backups. Pros have triple fault tolerance in their systems. The brainstormed system I back-of-the-enveloped here is single fault tolerant. Which do you think displays the greater respect for life? Your way or theirs?