Justin Harvey was driving through Orlando on Tuesday when he saw a rocket ship in the sky, leaving a trail of billowing white smoke on its way high above the heavens.
He didn’t bother to check the news afterward because he figured the Falcon Heavy rocket, launched by SpaceX and now considered the world’s most powerful operational spaceship, probably wound up in the Atlantic Ocean.
“When I saw it, I was ready to laugh,” he said. “Space travel is pretty much a hoax.”
The 30-year-old University of Central Florida alumnus is a Flat Earth conspiracy theorist, or a Flat Earther, and he doesn’t believe that NASA has ever been into space, or that its archive of photographic evidence showing the Earth’s spherical shape is anything but Photoshopped propaganda.
As for the red Tesla Roadster convertible — owned by billionaire Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk — 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 — Harvey included — to Raleigh, North Carolina. This year, it’ll be in Denver.
And on Feb. 17, 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 topic’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.
“I know the Earth is not a ball. Look, we live in Florida, dude,” said Jeffrey Main, 49, a Flat Earther living in Palm Harbor, Florida. “If it’s not observable, it’s not science. It’s theory.”
Despite the resounding evidence proving Earth’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, water’s lack of convexity and the lack of convincing evidence of the Earth’s motion around the Sun. They generally believe the world is a large, stationary disk surrounded by an ice wall.
“They have an explanation for a lot of this stuff,” Harvey said. “It’s a lot of blah blah, big words.... We’re told you live on a ball and you can’t leave unless you’re an astronaut.”
Harvey and Main, 49, said they used to believe in mainstream astrophysics, but that changed about two years ago when they were challenged online.
“At first I laughed it off,” Harvey said. “It took a while, but I finally cracked. I looked into it and I was blown away to be honest.”
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 “space bubbles,” 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 — Harvey doubts it. The crowd jeered at his question.
“You gotta expect it,” Harvey said. “It’s very typical with this topic.”
Dr. Massimiliano Galeazzi, the associate chair of the Department of Physics at the University of Miami, didn’t mince words about the Flat Earth theory.
“It’s very simple. Look at the images from the [International] Space Station,” he said. “They see the Earth, and it’s round. I’m not sure what more they want.”
An “open-minded” proponent of the scientific method and of challenging mainstream ideas, Galeazzi said Flat Earthers go “well beyond that.” To believe in a pancake planet, one must dig themself into a hole of denials, he said.
“It’s not just one explanation,” he said. “There are plenty of reasons why the earth must be spherical.”
Without spherical symetry, the theory of gravity wouldn’t hold up, he said. And without an orbit around the Sun, the technology used for GPS or satellite TV wouldn’t work.
He said the massive circumference of the Earth — 29,000 miles around — makes it impossible to observe the planet’s curvature from the ground.
“There is clear evidence and plenty of it,” he said. “They are entitled to their own opinion. Doesn’t mean that it makes sense.”
Both Harvey and Main, who met online, said the problem lies in the public’s over-reliance on mainstream science and the government.
“I think we have put too much faith in science and blindly believe what we are told because it's been accepted for so long,” Harvey said. “I just want people to question and think for themselves again and get back to trusting our own senses.”
“Don’t even bother listening to people on either side of it,” Main added. “Just do your own research.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized a belief Flat Earthers hold. They do not expect to see the Earth’s apparent curvature from the ground.