The conspiracy theory-laden social media onslaught unleashed by rapper B.o.B. got us thinking about another famous “the Earth is flat!” believer. Charles K. Johnson was the most notorious name associated with flat-Earth theories since Christopher Columbus. And he became something of a celebrity because of it.
Charles Kenneth Johnson was born in 1924. He became president of the International Flat Earth Society in 1972—but he’d believed the Earth was a flat planet since he was a child growing up in Texas and couldn’t wrap his head around the concept of gravity. He kept those beliefs with him during his 25 years working as an airplane mechanic in San Francisco. Eventually, he moved to the Mojave Desert and made a career shift into activism. He took over running the Society when its previous leader, Johnson’s good friend Samuel Shenton, passed away and designated him as successor. Shenton had founded the group in the 1950s but traced its origins back to 19th century England.
That Johnson’s desert abode was so close to Edwards Air Force Base, home of NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center, only made it more curious how strongly Johnson stuck to his beliefs. He believed the space program was a full-on hoax. In 1980, he gave an interview to Science Digest in which he opined “You can’t orbit a flat earth. The Space Shuttle is a joke—and a very ludicrous joke.”