By Peter Whoriskey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 27, 2007
CAPE CANAVERAL, April 26 -- It might not seem like a brilliant idea, allowing a frail 65-year-old paralytic to float free from gravity aboard a rising and plunging roller-coaster stunt flight.
But who's to argue with Stephen Hawking?
The celebrated British astrophysicist and black-hole theorist, author of "A Brief History of Time," paralyzed by Lou Gehrig's disease and communicating largely through eye movements, has long wanted to visit outer space. Human survival depends on getting there, he says. An event here Thursday was described as his first improbable step.
Dressed in dark blue flight suits, Hawking and an entourage of caretakers boarded a Boeing 727 that roared out over the ocean and carved huge parabolic arcs in the sky, creating for passengers the "zero-gravity" effect of being in space.
While floating, Hawking, who has been in a wheelchair for nearly four decades, was spun twice -- pirouetting like a "gold-medal gymnast," a crew member said. Someone floated an apple in the air alongside him in an allusion to Isaac Newton, whose esteemed chair Hawking now holds at Cambridge.
As each of the 25-second spells of weightlessness ended -- as the plane headed to the bottom of each arc -- assistants ensured that Hawking was lowered to a mattress on the plane's floor as gravity kicked back in.
"It was amazing. . . . I could have gone on and on. Space, here I come," Hawking said afterward, once again sitting in his wheelchair, his "voice" the product of a computerized synthesizer to which he dictates using eye movements.
Hawking, considered one of the giants among physicists pondering the beginnings of the universe, said he hopes to take a greater leap into the heavens in 2009 on a space plane being developed by Richard Branson's company Virgin Galactic. Flights like the one here Thursday -- once known at NASA as "vomit comets" -- have been used to accustom astronauts to space travel.
But Thursday's flight was more than simply a product of one celebrity's whimsy. It was a platform for Hawking's strikingly bleak view of humanity's future on Earth.
"Life on Earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster, such as sudden global warming, nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus or other dangers," Hawking said in a statement before boarding. "I think the human race has no future if it doesn't go into space. I therefore want to encourage public interest in space."
The flight benefited a charity for Lou Gehrig's disease -- a degenerative nerve disorder technically known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis -- as well as Easter Seals and two other groups. But Hawking said sending a message about what people with disabilities can achieve was only a small part of his motivation. He wants to encourage copycats -- people who will say, "If he can do it, I can, too."
"I hope many people will follow in my path," he said.
The flight took off about 2:30 p.m. here, reached 25,000 feet and then began a series of climbs at 45 degrees and dips at 30 degrees. For about 25 seconds at the peak of each hill, passengers are loosed from gravity and float. The effect is similar to the sensation felt by people on a roller coaster -- a slight sense of levitation as the ride tops a rise. While crew members said they had hoped for one to three of the zero-gravity maneuvers, they completed eight.
For Zero Gravity Corp., the company that offers the microgravity excursions to the general public for $3,500 a ride (soon to be available through Sharper Image), the flight served as a publicity vehicle.
"The only thing I can compare it to is to flying in dreams," said Peter H. Diamandis, chief executive and co-founder of Zero-G.
The danger for Hawking, his aides said, was not the sense of weightlessness but the extra gravity force at the bottom of each descent. The force could have made it more difficult for him to breathe, for example.
For safety, three physicians were aboard the flight. To allow them to monitor Hawking's condition, a probe was affixed to his earlobe to test his blood oxygen, his chest carried EKG devices, and his arm bore a blood-pressure cuff.
During the free-floating portions of the flight, Hawking was without his voice synthesizer. He was to communicate yes by raising his eyebrows and no by pulling his mouth to one side.
The fears proved unwarranted.
After one zero-gravity ride, crew members asked if he wanted to go again. Hawking dramatically stretched his eyebrows upward in an apparently emphatic yes.
"He was grinning the entire time," Diamandis said.