British physicist Stephen Hawking plans to take a ride in a zero gravity environment, as part of his ongoing studies on the nature of gravity.
Hawking, who has spent decades in a wheelchair, has acted as a Cambridge professor, best-selling author, and even a cartoon character on "The Simpsons." But he has not yet experienced weightlessness.
The ride is planned for April 26, out of Cape Canaveral, on a padded aircraft that has been nicknamed the "vomit comet" by astronauts-in-training. In order to achieve weightlessness, the specially rigged 727-200 is capable of handling the forces associated with steep ascents and descents.
The company providing the rides, Zero Gravity, has been offering the rides since 2004, and usually charges about $3,500 per trip, but will be giving Hawking his trip for free.
Zero Gravity last made the news soon after it was founded, when it embarked on a six-city tour and flew Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin during one of the stops. At the time, Aldrin called the ride "exhilarating," and expressed hope that everyone interested in adventure tourism and space would participate in the opportunity.
The upcoming flight might be more than a chance for Hawking to experience weightlessness; it might be in preparation for similar trips.
In January, the scientist announced on his 65th birthday that he wanted to take a longer flight within a few years on a plane that is being developed by Virgin Galactic, the brainchild of Virgin founder Richard Branson.
In taking the trips, Hawking noted in news reports that he wanted to show that people do not have to be limited by physical handicaps, "as long as they are not disabled in spirit." He added that he would also like to encourage public interest in spaceflight, which the author and professor thinks is vital for humanity's future.
In the past, Hawking has said that humanity's survival depends on colonizing the solar system and beyond, because life on earth is increasing at risk of being destroyed by disasters like nuclear wars, genetically engineered viruses, or other dangers.
Hawking's trip might do more than allow the physicist to experience the thrill of zero gravity; it could boost interest in space tourism and bring some much-needed good publicity to the U.S. space program.
One beneficiary of that good publicity likely will be Virgin Galactic, which is building a suborbital spaceship that could be flying passengers by 2009. Branson has noted that he will personally pay for Hawking's ticket when the station becomes operational, giving the scientist a free pass for a flight that will probably cost about $200,000 for other passengers.
NASA also might benefit from some positive attention paid to space travel, after the black eye it received recently when one of its astronauts, Lisa Nowak, attempted to kidnap and possibly murder another astronaut.
Even the state of Florida is looking to get a boost from the Hawking trip. In an interview with Florida Today, the chief of a development commission in the state, Lynda Weatherman, noted that this one event will do more to cement the area's position in the industry than any ad campaign could achieve.