Hawking Flies Free in Zero-G Joyride

World-renowned physicist, cosmologist and best-selling author Stephen Hawking fulfilled a lifelong dream Thursday when he experienced zero gravity and weightlessness for the first time aboard Zero Gravity’s G-Force One.

The flight took off from the Shuttle Landing Facility at the Kennedy Space Center in Central Florida. Zero Gravity cofounders Peter Diamandis and astronaut Byron Lichtenberg were also aboard, along with financial backers of the company, a team of physicians and nurses, and a small set of passengers who bid a total of US$144,000 toward charities to go on the flight.

The jet flew up to about 32,000 feet and performed eight parabolic dives, during which passengers experienced weightlessness for about 25 seconds.

“It was amazing. The zero-g part was wonderful,” said Hawking. “I could have gone on and on. Space, here I come!”

A Wheelchair-Free Trip

Hawking, a professor at Cambridge University, is severely disabled by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. He did not fly with his wheelchair; instead, he lay flat on his back on a padded floor in the center of the large open cabin at the start of each parabola. He then floated up into the center of the cabin.

Diamandis and Lichtenberg were positioned alongside Hawking as he floated weightless with the assistance of a nurse practitioner. They then carefully guided him slowly back down to the floor during the return to normal gravity.

He was connected to heart, blood pressure and oxygen-measuring monitors during the flight.

“I recommend the experience to everyone, and I hope that many will follow me and experience weightlessness,” Hawking said. “The space shuttle landing facility is the first step to the moon and Mars. It is very special for me, to fly into weightlessness from here.”

An Expert on Gravity

Despite his disability, Hawking has made major contributions to the fields of cosmology and quantum gravity, particularly in the study of black holes. He has frequently expressed his interest in experiencing weightlessness, and reportedly plans to fly aboard Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, which is scheduled to begin commercial space flights by 2009.

Zero Gravity’s flights normally cost $3,750, but Hawking’s ticket was paid by the company itself. Since its launch in September 2004, the company has conducted more than 100 weightless flights for more than 2,500 passengers.

G-Force One is a modified 35-passenger Boeing 727-200, sometimes affectionately referred to as the “vomit comet,” that provides weightless flights similar to those conducted by NASA to train its astronauts.

Zero Gravity was only recently granted FAA approval to fly individuals with disabilities, and Hawking was its first such passenger. The flight was sponsored by Space Florida and The Sharper Image, which recently announced that it will sell tickets for Zero Gravity flights through its 187 retail locations nationwide.

A Dream Come True

“Professor Hawking’s expression said it all — the grins of sheer joy and excitement he displayed were unmistakable and no different than the giddiness and fun that all of our flyers experience,” said Diamandis. “For me personally, and for all of us at Zero-G, it has been a complete honor and thrill to give Professor Hawking this opportunity to fulfill one of his lifelong dreams,” he added.

“After all these years, he’s finally gone on board a zero-gravity airplane,” Paul Czysz, professor emeritus of aerospace engineering at St. Louis University, told TechNewsWorld.

“With all of the theories that he’s generated on black holes and the meaning of time, this is something he always wanted to do and probably never thought he could until recently,” he noted. “It was really good of Zero Gravity to fund his flight, and for him, it’s a real accomplishment.”

Hawking’s mind “has been free of gravity for most of his life, so it’s nice to see his body follow,” James Oberg, a retired rocket scientist who is now an author and full-time media consultant, told TechNewsWorld. “The only question I have is, when will he do it again?”

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