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Mon, Apr 30, 2007

Dreamlike... Flying With Professor Stephen Hawking

A Brief History Of A Day In The Life Of An 'Amazing' Man

by ANN Editor-In-Chief and Zero-G Photographer Jim Campbell

Driving back from the Shuttle Landing Facility aboard a NASA crew bus, I watched an amazing man form his first cohesive words, following a triumphant, albeit temporary, release from the clutches of gravity...

I... T...

W... A... S...

A...M... A... Z... I... N... G...

Those were the first words laboriously dictated to a specially designed computer system by famed scientist, astrophysicist, researcher and educator Stephen Hawking. In the next few words and pictures, let me share with you some of the background, details, and sensations I noted during a truly amazing day while serving as Zero-G's photographer aboard G-Force One... one that I think will be prominent in my memories for a long time. I've done this many times... but this time, well, it was special.

And yes... it was, indeed, amazing. Absolutely.

Under the expert and exhaustive supervision of XPrize and Zero-G founder, Dr. Peter Diamandis, every aspect of the "Hawking Flight" was practiced the day before, including a full dress rehearsal flight, until we felt that nothing was left to chance... As it turned out, the prep was a bit of overkill, as the flight went off superbly and without a glitch. Here, Professor Hawking, his caregivers, and support staff come aboard via the side door of the Zero-G 727, in preparation for the historic flight.

On board "G Force One", dozens of Hawking fans, friends and support staff made ready to enjoy the Professor's release from terrestrial gravity. The energy level was high and spirits were (literally) soaring.

This was a full flight... filled with Zero-G staffers, Hawking's staff, some medical personnel (there to monitor the Professor and collect data for future flights involving the disabled), and a few folks that bid big dollars to several worthy charities in order to be observers to a unique 'moment in time.'

Hawking caregiver Monica Guy, Nicola O'Brien and Peter Diamandis (who, by the way, is also an MD) settle in with Doctor Hawking and made sure that he was prepared well for the more "weighty" aspects of the flight.

Professor Hawking was monitored carefully by an amiable and professional staff of medical specialists, who obviously bonded strongly with him and were quite attentive to every aspect of his needs. Interestly; Hawking's vital stats changed very little during the flight. Positioned near some of the instrumentation, I can verify that Hawking's heart rate varied little between the positive and Zero-G excursions of the flight -- and his smile showed that he was having the time of his life.

'Thumbs-Up". Professor Hawking shows his enthusiasm for the flight with a little help from his friends. No kidding, the professor was all smiles throughout the flight and kept signaling to his caregivers that he wanted to do more parabolas as each one was completed... they were hoping to do one... they did eight!

Shuttle Astronaut/Scientist Byron Lichtenberg and Peter Diamandis carefully monitored Hawking throughout the Zero-G maneuvers, lifting him as the "G" dissipated, and then letting him fly free of gravity and a wheelchair for the first time in decades. As gravity came off, his smile deepened, his eyes twinkled and much of the ravages of time and disease fell away. No kidding... at this point I was crying all over the back of my camera. I admit it. I wasn't the only one.

Peter got the crazy idea (many of which come naturally to him, with great frequency) of floating an apple alongside Doctor Hawking... in something of a tribute to Sir Isaac Newton... who might have gotten a chuckle out of the whole thing, we imagine.

Prof. Hawking’s best selling books, “A Brief History of Time” and “Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays” examines the basic laws, history and future of the universe. Hawking is known for his contributions to the fields of cosmology and quantum gravity, especially in the context of black holes. He has also made public his interest in experiencing weightlessness, and the importance of space as the next frontier for human population. Next, Hawking wants to fly aboard SpaceShipTwo. I hereby volunteer my services as the photographer for that mission.

Peter (right) chats with Doctor Edwin Chilvers, one of Hawking's physicians, as G Force One headed home to the Shuttle Landing Facility, having made history just off the coast of Florida... eight times. Hawking's staff and caregivers were elated... they obviously cared deeply for him.

Zero-G's dedicated weightless transport aircraft, a sturdy Boeing 727, makes a fly-by for friends and media as we came home. (ANN Staff Photo by Sarah Curtiss) 

The one good idea that I'll lay claim to was my suggestion to Peter that all the flyers and support staff line both sides of Hawking's exit, as he emerged from G Force One... to applaud his spirit, his courage and his vision... and yeah... there wasn't a dry eye on the ramp. As he came back to earth, we applauded and celebrated his triumph with deep and genuine enthusiasm. (ANN Staff Photo by Sarah Curtiss) 

From inside the crew bus... on our way back from weightlessness, that's the American flag attached to each Zero-G flightsuit, peeking out from the side of Hawking's wheelchair. (ANN Staff Photo by Sarah Curtiss) 

“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,” noted Peter Diamandis, CEO and Co-Founder of ZERO-G, “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.” (ANN Staff Photo by Sarah Curtiss) 

Yup... that's me, Professor Hawking and ANN's Sarah Curtiss, who did yeoman's duty as Photo Editor and Ground Photographer. We both worked three of the most intense days of our lives to support and prepare for this adventure... sleeping about 4 hours out of 72, but Sarah was, well, amazing... always ready to do what needed to be done... even when it wasn't her job. Media demands were heavy, but this event was such a pleasure and a privilege that it didn't matter. I've been a part of many historic events in the aviation and aerospace world... and will shortly be a part of writing that history myself when I start test flying Peter's next Rocket program in the not too distant future... but I can't imagine a single event that has been as emotionally and spiritually satisfying as what I was just a part of. I mean... I FLEW with Stephen Hawking. Imagine that...

Space is a dream to many... even to those with disabilities and impediments that may, once, have kept them from fully believing that they could journey to the heavens and beyond. But Stephen Hawking went beyond all that... freed from a wheelchair, disease, and gravity; Astrophysicist/Gifted Human Being/Teacher/Professor Stephen Hawking flew... and flew well. I know he'll fly again. -- Jim Campbell, ANN E-I-C/Zero-G Photographer, Planet Earth, 04.30.07 

FMI: www.gozerog.com

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