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Dr. Hawking's date with weightlessness

Famed quadriplegic physicist Stephen Hawking confirms that he's planning to take a zero-gravity flight this year - a weightless adventure that's likely to unfold aboard a specially outfitted Boeing 727 operated by Zero Gravity Corp. Hawking made the comment in a 65th-birthday interview published today in The Telegraph, a British newspaper. "This year I'm planning a zero-gravity flight and to go into space in 2009," he said.

So what does Zero Gravity have to say about that plan?

Getty Images file
Stephen Hawking says
he's planning a zero-
gravity flight this year.

Zero Gravity's chief marketing officer, Noah McMahon, was coy about the arrangements last week, when I asked him about the status of the company's month-old invitation to Hawking. He said there have been extended discussions with the Cambridge theorist, and hinted that there would be more to say this week.

The plan would call for Hawking to board Zero Gravity's "G-Force One" with assistants who could take care of him during the flight. At an altitude of 30,000 feet, the plane would go through a series of roller-coaster parabolic maneuvers to produce about 30 seconds of weightlessness at a time.

Why would Hawking, who has lost the use of his legs and arms and must communicate through a blink-operated computer, go on such a flight? Well, for one thing, it can be a lot of fun - as I found out last fall. For another thing, such a flight would serve as preparation for a future flight aboard Virgin Galactic's suborbital space plane. In recent months, Hawking has said flying in space was his next goal, and Virgin Galactic has been working with him to make that dream a reality.

Hawking's zero-G trip would send a signal that you needn't give up on your weightless dreams just because you use a wheelchair. Over the past few months, Zero Gravity has been working with the Federal Aviation Administration on the procedures for flying people with disabilities.

It's not yet clear exactly when the flight would take place, but the schedule may become clearer this week. Hawking is due to travel to the United States in April for a lecture in Seattle, plus activities elsewhere. I'm guessing that would serve as the soonest opportunity for Hawking to go weightless. Stay tuned...