Stephen Hawking, one of the world’s foremost scientists who suffers from Lou Gehrig’s disease, blasts off into zero gravity flight

If you have ever known someone with “Lou Gherig’s” disease you know what a horrible disease it is.  

After losing a relative to “Lou Gherig’s” disease several years ago I was drawn to this article and found it article so heartwarming.  I can only imagine how Stephen Hawking must have felt not only being totally free of his wheelchair but to also get to experience the same feeling of weightlessness that the astronauts do.  It also made me think of this as a possible controlled condition for helping certain patients with physical therapy. 

Michael Cabbage | Sentinel space editor
Posted April 26, 2007, 8:53 PM EDT

CAPE CANAVERAL — One of the world’s foremost scientists slipped free from his wheelchair Thursday to  float in zero gravity in the skies above the Atlantice Ocean. 

Stephen Hawking, a renowned British  astrophysicist who is stricken with Lou Gehrig’s disease, experienced about four minutes of simulated weightlessness aboard a modified Boeing 727 jet operated by the Zero Gravity Corp. The flight — part philanthropy, part space tourism, part publicity stunt — departed from the Kennedy Space Center’s shuttle runway while a throng of international media looked on.

Hawking told reporters at a news conference before taking off that he wanted to demonstrate that anyone could take part in the experience. Unable to move his limbs or speak, he communicated with a computer-synthesized voice controlled by a headset that measures small facial movements.

“I think the human race has no future if it doesn’t go into space,” Hawking said. “I have long wanted to go into space and the zero gravity flight is a first step toward space travel.”

After the flight, Hawking suggested he was ready to take the next step.

“It was amazing,” Hawking said. “I could have gone on and on. Space, here I come.”

More than dozen people accompanied the 65-year-old professor on the flight, including four doctors and two nurses sent along to monitor his health. Instruments measured Hawking’s blood pressure, heart rate, and oxygen and carbon dioxide levels to ensure his well-being.

After departing KSC eastward over the Atlantic, the flight climbed to an altitude of 32,000 feet. Eight controlled dives created periods of weightlessness lasting 20-25 seconds during the 90-minute trip.

Hawking was laid on his back on the floor of the aircraft’s forward section. Then, when the dives began, two people — Zero Gravity Corp. co-founders Peter Diamandis and Byron Lichtenberg — helped lift Hawking up and hold him in position. During a couple of dives, Hawking asked the two men to flip him around.

“He was doing gold medalist gymnastics in zero g[ravity],” Diamandis said.
Thursday’s weightless flight by Hawking was the first for a disabled person. Leaving nothing to chance, the same team had flown a practice run Wednesday with Ted Straight, a 14-year-old middle school student from Melbourne, serving as Hawking’s stand-in.

“Professor Hawking is about as determined as any individual on the planet,” said Edwin Chilvers, his personal physician, “which is why we’re here doing this.”

Based in Florida and Las Vegas, Zero Gravity Corp. has flown more than 2,500 passengers on simulated weightless flights since starting operations in October 2004. An excursion featuring 15 dives costs about $3,500 per seat.

The group flying with Hawking included eight people who bought seats at an auction by the company to raise $144,000 for charity. The beneficiaries were Easter Seals, the Starlight Starbright Children’s Foundation, the Augies Quest program aimed at treating amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and the X Prize Foundation.

Hawking, a professor at Cambridge University, is considered one of the world’s foremost authorities on cosmology and theoretical phenomena such as black holes. He is the author of the best-selling book “A Brief History of Time.”

Michael Cabbage can be reached at mcabbage@orlandosentinel.com or at 321-639-0522.