By MARTIN VASSOLO
Justin Harvey was driving through Orlando last week when he saw a rocket ship in the sky, leaving a trail of billowing white smoke on its way high above the heavens.
He didnâ€™t bother to check the news afterward because he figured the Falcon Heavy rocket, launched by SpaceX and now considered the worldâ€™s most powerful operational spaceship, probably wound up in the Atlantic Ocean.
â€śWhen I saw it, I was ready to laugh,â€ť he said. â€śSpace travel is pretty much a hoax.â€ť
The 30-year-old University of Central Florida alumnus is a Flat Earth conspiracy theorist, or a Flat Earther, and he doesnâ€™t believe NASA has ever been into space, or that its archive of photographic evidence showing the Earthâ€™s spherical shape is anything but Photoshopped propaganda.
As for the red Tesla Roadster convertible â€” owned by billionaire Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk â€” that was released into orbit by Falcon Heavy, Harvey believes it was either parked in a film studio or stitched together using computer-generated imagery.
Across the U.S. in recent years, online contingencies of Flat Earthers have grown exponentially, and as their platform has expanded, their comfort publicly expressing their beliefs has, too. Last year, the sold-out Flat Earth International Conference attracted several hundred people â€” Harvey included â€” to Raleigh, N.C. This year, itâ€™ll be in Denver.
And this Saturday, Harvey, who works as an Uber and Lyft driver, will give a lecture at the Meeting of the Minds in Miami. Despite majoring in business and real estate at UCF, Harvey has gained some influence in the Flat Earth sphere. Speaking to the topicâ€™s popularity, several smaller Flat Earth events in Miami are scheduled to take place in the coming weeks. Flat Earthers also have celebrities within their ranks, including Boston Celtics superstar Kyrie Irving and rapper B.O.B.
Several social media users took to Twitter following the Falcon Heavy launch, and the release of video showing the Tesla floating through space with a globular Earth in the background was an apparent victory over Flat Earthers. But Harvey said the video of the Tesla seemed fake to him, as there were no stars, satellites or debris to be found.
â€śI know the Earth is not a ball. Look, we live in Florida, dude,â€ť said Jeffrey Main, 49, a Flat Earther living in Palm Harbor, Fla. â€śIf itâ€™s not observable, itâ€™s not science. Itâ€™s theory.â€ť
Despite the resounding evidence proving Earthâ€™s spherical shape, Flat Earthers counter with their own arguments, like the inability to observe the curvature of the Earth even from the top of high-altitude weather balloons, waterâ€™s lack of convexity and the lack of convincing evidence of the Earthâ€™s motion around the Sun. They generally believe the world is a large, stationary disk surrounded by an ice wall.
â€śThey have an explanation for a lot of this stuff,â€ť Harvey said. â€śItâ€™s a lot of blah blah, big words â€¦ . Weâ€™re told you live on a ball and you canâ€™t leave unless youâ€™re an astronaut.â€ť
Harvey and Main said they used to believe in mainstream astrophysics, but that changed about two years ago when they were challenged online.
â€śAt first I laughed it off,â€ť Harvey said. â€śIt took a while, but I finally cracked. I looked into it and I was blown away to be honest.â€ť
After a year of researching, Harvey was confident enough to speak about his beliefs in public. Last year he posed a NASA-denying question to retired NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent more than a year on the International Space Station, which Harvey believes is actually under water.
He asked him about â€śspace bubbles,â€ť a phenomenon spotted by Flat Earthers in ISS videos that they attribute to underwater filming. Kelly said what appears to be bubbles could be space debris or paint chips â€” Harvey doubts it. The crowd jeered at his question.
â€śYou gotta expect it,â€ť Harvey said. â€śItâ€™s very typical with this topic.â€ť
Dr. Massimiliano Galeazzi, the associate chairman of the Department of Physics at the University of Miami, didnâ€™t mince words about the Flat Earth theory.
â€śItâ€™s very simple. Look at the images from the (International) Space Station,â€ť he said. â€śThey see the Earth, and itâ€™s round. Iâ€™m not sure what more they want.â€ť
An â€śopen-mindedâ€ť proponent of the scientific method and of challenging mainstream ideas, Galeazzi said Flat Earthers go â€śwell beyond that.â€ť To believe in a pancake planet, one must dig themselves into a hole of denials, he said.
â€śItâ€™s not just one explanation,â€ť he said. â€śThere are plenty of reasons why the Earth must be spherical.â€ť
Without spherical symmetry, the theory of gravity wouldnâ€™t hold up, he said. And without an orbit around the Sun, the technology used for GPS or satellite TV wouldnâ€™t work.
He said the massive circumference of the Earth â€” 29,000 miles around â€” makes it impossible to observe the planetâ€™s curvature from the ground.
â€śThere is clear evidence and plenty of it,â€ť he said. â€śThey are entitled to their own opinion. Doesnâ€™t mean that it makes sense.â€ť
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency.