World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking plans to join an eager lineup of customers for Virgin Galactic suborbital flights.
In an interview on Monday with the British program Good Morning Britain, the physicist and cosmologist said that he's been wanting to visit space ever since he experienced a weightless flight aboard a plane that flies parabolic loops to simulate zero gravity. He was likely referring to a Zero Gravity Corp. flight in 2007 aboard a specially-modified Boeing 727-200 aircraft called G-FORCE ONE.
"My ambition is to fly into space," remarked Hawking, speaking with a computerized voice from his wheelchair. "I thought no one would take me, but [Virgin founder] Richard Branson has offered me a seat on Virgin Galactic."
Virgin Galactic has been aiming to fly tourists into space for more than a decade, aboard SpaceShipTwo. The flight plan calls for SpaceShipTwo to be lifted to 50,000 feet aboard a carrier ship, called WhiteKnightTwo, before being released. SpaceShipTwo will then rocket into suborbital space, long enough for tourists to experience five minutes of weightlessness before returning to Earth.
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Technical difficulties and a fatal test flight in October 2014 have pushed the first tourist launch date of Virgin Galactic forward indefinitely. Virgin resumed test flights in 2016 and has a reported wait list of 700 people waiting for their chance to experience space. A ticket is reported to cost $250,000.
Hawking has a condition called ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Popularly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, the condition causes the death of neurons that control voluntary muscles. Hawking was diagnosed in 1963 and was initially expected to live only two years. Four decades later, however, he remains an active physicist.
In 2016, Zero Gravity Corp. co-founder Peter Diamandis described the difficulties in flying Hawking on the 2007 flight, which simulated weightlessness for a few seconds at a time. While Hawking was certified by multiple doctors to fly, the Federal Aviation Administration expressed concern that he was not able-bodied enough to participate.
"To maximize the chance of a safe flight, we set up an emergency room onboard G-FORCE ONE and supported Professor Hawking with four physicians and two nurses accompanying him on the trip (monitoring heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, etc.)," Diamandis later wrote.
While Diamandis was hoping to fly two 30-second weightless arcs with Hawking on board, the physicist did so well that he experienced eight.
"On the heels of this successful flight with Hawking showing a disabled individual could safely fly in Zero G, I was very proud that we next had the amazing opportunity to fly six wheelchair-bound teenagers into zero gravity," Diamandis noted. "These were kids who had never walked a day in their lives, yet they got to soar like Superman on their flight."