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Mon, Mar 05, 2007

Hawking to Make Zero Gravity Flight Next Month

A Taste Of Space For Astrophysicist

Renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking will soon move beyond the confines of the wheelchair he uses to weightlessness during next month's weightless flight, operated by Zero Gravity Corporation.

Almost completely paralyzed by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease, his flight will take off and return to a landing strip at the Kennedy Space Center, reports the Associated Press.

"As someone who has studied gravity and black holes all of my life, I am excited to experience first hand weightlessness and a zero-gravity environment," Hawking said.

Zero Gravity founder Peter Diamandis said he will fly with Hawking, who also will be accompanied by assistants and special medical equipment.

Zero Gravity has flown more than 2,500 people on its commercial flight service since its debut in late 2004. The plane, called G-Force One, makes parabolic flights to weightlessness as the speed of the craft's descent momentarily exceeds the force of Earth's gravitational pull.

Medical issues will be the main concern during Hawking's flight, reported Independent Media. His disease leaves Hawking without the use of his arms, legs or voice. He is able to articulate through a specially-designed computer system.

"As someone who has studied gravity and black holes all of my life, I am excited to experience, firsthand, weightlessness and a zero-gravity environment," Hawking said in a written statement.

"I am thankful to Zero Gravity for making this experience available to the general public, especially for disabled individuals," he added.

To achieve the effect of weightlessness, the modified Boeing 727 first climbs to 32,000 feet at a sharp angle, where passengers experience 24 seconds of being pushed down hard, feeling 1.8 times the normal pull of earth; when the plane plunges 8,000 feet, passengers experience 25-seconds snippets of zero gravity during descent.

"The key thing here is that weightless and personal spaceflight is something available to everyone, even someone like Prof. Hawking," Diamandis told The Associated Press. "This something that almost everyone can now experience."

Zero Gravity will pick up Hawkings' bill, which is normally $3,750. The company also plans to have two seats on the flight auctioned off by two charities.

As Aero-News reported, earlier this year Hawking publicly spoke of his desire to go into space. He made an appeal to Sir Richard Branson, whose company Virgin Galactic is building a suborbital spaceship that could be flying passengers as early as 2009.

Branson decided he will personally finance Hawking's ticket into space -- a flight that would normally cost $200,000.

"He's one of the greatest physicists of all time," Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn told AP.

The company is partnered with famed aircraft designer Burt Rutan, who designed, built, and flew the first privately owned manned spaceship to win a $10-million prize in 2004.

The vehicle, known as SpaceShipOne, now hangs in the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington. Its successor, SpaceShipTwo, is scheduled to begin test flights next year.

Just last November, Hawking received the Copley medal, the highest award for scientific achievement for his work in theoretical physics and cosmology. He joins elite recipients such as Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, and Louis Pasteur.

Hawking is a mathematics professor at the University of Cambridge. His groundbreaking theoretical work has allowed for the classification and greater understanding of black holes.

He has also written four books, including A Brief History of Time and The Universe in a Nutshell.

FMI: www.hawking.org.uk, www.gozerog.com, www.virgingalactic.com

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