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November 24, 2017

How a Philly billboard inspired a flat earth believer to ride a homemade rocket into space

'This is purely an attention thing. It’s a billboard.'

By now, you may have already heard about “Mad” Mike Hughes and his plans to launch himself into the skies over a California ghost town on a “steam-powered rocket built of salvaged metals.”

And if you have heard about the 1,800-foot mission being undertaken by a “self-taught rocket scientist," you know it’s part of the ever-intriguing “flat earth” movement.

It’s the type of story that naturally draws a lot of attention. You have the quirky mission, the specter of death and an issue that many people write off as lunacy.

But Philadelphia bears much responsibility for planting the idea for this launch in Hughes’ mind.

Back in June, Tim Ozman – a flat-earther who sells artwork online and helms a small publishing operation in Albuquerque, New Mexico – and the likeminded Infinite Plane Society launched an awareness mission of their own right along I-76 in Philadelphia’s Grays Ferry neighborhood.

“Research Flat Earth,” read the electronic billboard they paid some $900 to air that message to passing motorists some 10,000 times this summer.

Ozman reached out to PhillyVoice this Thanksgiving week, proud that the rocket launch has garnered so much attention.

He said that Hughes caught wind of their efforts because of the billboard mission that started right here in Philly.

To hear Ozman tell it, Hughes got in touch with them with an offer: I’ll paint the rocket with a Flat Earth message in exchange for sponsorship dollars. When Ozman’s group raised $7,800, the offer became a reality.

“The Philadelphia billboard is absolutely ‘ground zero’ for the flat-earth insurrection.” – Tim Ozman

“The stories about the billboards is how he found us,” Ozman said. “The Philadelphia billboard is absolutely ‘ground zero’ for the flat-earth insurrection.”

The launch was initially scheduled for summer, he said, but they decided to hold off until after the big Flat Earth Conference held in North Carolina earlier this month.

Ozman said coverage of the launch is getting some important points wrong, though.

“The stories say he thinks he’s going to prove (the earth is flat), but that’s not right,” he said. “This is purely an attention thing. It’s a billboard. 

"The goal was to make flat-earth a dinner-table discussion at every table in America, and the buzz it’s created at Thanksgiving is perfect.”

The coverage also sparked some problems, as it exposed the rocket man's plans.

Though initially slated to happen Saturday, the launch has been delayed a few days as the rocket got entangled in bureaucratic red tape.

Ozman said the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Bureau of Land Management interfered with the launch – previously scheduled for 3 p.m. Saturday. Not to worry, he said: They’re just moving it to another site three miles away.

“It will still happen,” he said. “He’s also called out people like Elon Musk in the Washington Post, saying he’s faking rockets with blimps, and he’s calling out the big space agencies. It’s great.

“I went to see the rocket for myself and I’m confident (he’ll survive). The guy’s a living breathing crash test dummy. He has bigger plans for the future, too, with the attention and money from this leading to something more ambitious.”

We asked Ozman to get us in touch with Hughes, but that hadn't come to pass as of early Saturday morning. 

However, the daredevil conceded that there would be a delay, and that Ozman was right insofar as the reason for, and location of, the move. Now, they expect it to happen no earlier than Tuesday.

"It's still happening. We're just moving it three miles down the road," he told the Washington Post. "This happens anytime you have to deal with any kind of government agency."