Popular Mechanics (USA)



Price: $2,595 (Queen) Return Policy: 100 nights (includes shipping) Warranty: 10 years

This hybrid features multiple layers of Casper's new foam tech, called Airscape, which Casper claims is cooler and allows better airflow, though we didn’t perceive a huge cooling effect here. It also features Casper’s new Zoned Support system, which is firmer in areas where you need it most (under the hips, for example) and more relaxed in others. Gel pods in key areas boost comfort and pressure relief. We noticed real benefits during our test. “The zone at the head of the

reach space on a budget. The company sold to the Science Channel, and signed Hughes and Stakes as their stars.

Though had already been released, the producers wanted original footage of Hughes in flight. Hughes set to work building a new 19-foot steam rocket, and in the second half of 2019, with WOW’s cameras present, he and Stakes tried repeatedly to launch. The first time out, the rocket sprung a leak. The second, the entire rocket overheated. (Stakes tried to cool it down, but when Hughes climbed inside, the seat burned a waffle pattern on his back.) The third time, a nozzle in the tail sprung a leak—not enough to foil them if they moved quickly, but a spooked Hughes decided to abort.

Stakes believed the metal plug they’d used to cork the steam inside the rocket was compromise­d, and came up with an alternate system: They would use a kind of rupture disc, a metal plate that would seal up the steam until it was intentiona­lly punctured to release pressure—in this case, to launch. Stakes proposed a metal toe ball, like the ball on a trailer hitch, to punch the hole at launch. But Hughes instead devised an actuator that would pull the plate away.

Stakes didn’t like it: There was a chance the steam wouldn’t come out uniformly. “Mike,” he said, “I’m 100 percent against this.”

He consulted fellow crew member Danny Bern, who has nearly 60 years of experience working on pressuriza­tion and pneumatics systems for the stunt and racing industries. He was part of Danny Thompson’s record-breaking 448-mph haul in a piston-powered car at Bonneville in 2018. He’d volunteere­d to help Hughes five years earlier, and they’d become friends—still he sided with Stakes on the rupture disc. “But Mike was very independen­t,” he says. “You couldn’t change his mind on a lot of things.”

“He wouldn’t have none of it,” Stakes says. “And since he’s his own fabricator, I said, ‘Okay dude, we’re good.’ I was mad at him for a month.”

And as a fourth attempt arrived, on February 22, the presence of the film crew imbued the launch with a fresh urgency. “The production company had had enough of us,” Stakes says. “They were $60,000 over budget because we’d had them come to three launches—we were under the gun.”

Others agree that there was a tacit pressure. “I definitely think that was a piece of it,” says Tone Stakes, who negotiated his father’s contract with WOW. “Because they were kind of hinting at the idea that, well, they didn’t really have enough to put the fourth episode together, and they wanted a little more action, because that was when they thought they would be able to really pitch the network and see about getting a longer-term partnershi­p.”

He adds: “Mike was one of those guys that, anytime somebody offered him money, he was their guy all of a sudden.” (A WOW spokespers­on declined to comment on whether there were implicit or explicit expectatio­ns that Hughes do the launch.)

Stakes could see Hughes warring with himself. The side of Mad Mike that valued his own life was permanentl­y at odds with the attention- and approval-starved part of him that was determined, at age 64, to make a name for himself before it was too late. When they had first met, Stakes recalls, “I felt sorry for him because I could tell he’d never had anybody on his side.”

After setting up for the launch, Stakes drove Hughes home the evening of February 21. The desert blurred past outside the windows of Waldo’s pickup truck, a 2002 Ford F-150 with 441,000 miles on it that he’d nicknamed the Gray Ghost. Hughes would spend the night home with his cats, his typical prelaunch ritual. Stakes used the quiet moments on the road to talk Hughes out of the launch. He said his friend Garren Frantzen had had a nightmare in which a rocket soared into the clouds, then crashed to the ground before its parachutes deployed.

Stakes says the dream struck him as a meaningful premonitio­n, but Hughes waved him off: “Garren’s just trying to rain on our parade.”

Stakes tried a different tack.

“There’s so many other things we can do,” he said. “We’ve already proved we can build a steam rocket and jump it.” The incrementa­l gains, he said, weren’t worth the risk.

“Let’s take any money we can raise and let’s go to space,” Stakes told Hughes. “Let’s quit screwing around with these things. Those things are gonna kill you. Every time you get in one of those, you throw the dice.”

Space, though, was worth the risk: Their exploits could inspire future scientists and explorers. Hughes was adamant. “I’m gonna do it,” he said. “I want them to have their own footage.”

Stakes replied that no matter what happened, this was his last steamrocke­t launch. He was irritated that Hughes was doing it for the TV crew. “Fuck the production company,” he said. “Forget these guys.”

But he knew Hughes wouldn’t listen.

AS MAGICAL AS the Mojave appears at night, during the day it’s transforme­d into something forbidding: all sunbleache­d scrub and searing UV rays and scorched earth—all things prickly, jagged, and venomous.

On launch day, the sky was hostile. The crew had reconvened on private property eight miles south of Barstow, and at least initially, everything proceeded smoothly, says Stakes. Rain had been in the forecast, but he knew it would hold off—after 30 years in the desert, he can smell oncoming precipitat­ion. Bern would be operating the radio, communicat­ing with Hughes. Mad Mike’s goal was to fly a mile up.

The steam was superheate­d by early afternoon. Stakes has a typical launch routine: Sprinkle a few drops of holy water from the Vatican into the rocket’s tank; then say prayers with the team and with Hughes individual­ly. This time, Hughes refused the holy water; prayers would have to do. “The juju has to be good,” he says. “You gotta get right with God, because you could be seeing him in a few minutes.”

Hughes climbed inside the cockpit and strapped in. Clouds wheeled across the sky. Hughes rotated a ball valve a quarter-turn to continued on page 78

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