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Physicist Hawking to Fly Weightless

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla (AP) - Stephen Hawking has been imprisoned by his body for many years.

But for a few seconds on Thursday, the celebrated British physicist and author will float free, unrestricted by his paralyzed muscles and his wheelchair as he floats weightless on a zero gravity flight.

"I have wanted to fly in space all of my life," Hawking told the Associated Press in an interview Tuesday. "For someone like me whose muscles don't work very well, it will be bliss to be weightless."

Hawking, 65, has the paralyzing disease ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. He will be the first person with a disability to fly on one of the flights offered by Zero Gravity Corp., a space tourism company. It has flown about 2,700 people on Florida-based flights since late 2004 and began offering flights in Las Vegas this week.

Unable to talk or move his hands and legs, Hawking can only make tiny facial expressions using the muscles around his eyes, eyebrows, cheek and mouth to communicate. Otherwise, he relies on a computer to talk for him in a synthesized voice. The computer is attached to his wheelchair and allows him to choose words on a computer screen through an infrared sensor on a headpiece that detects motion in his cheek.

He raises an eyebrow to signal "yes," and tenses his mouth to the side to indicate "no."

Flying from Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, the modified jet creates the experience of microgravity during 25-second plunges over the Atlantic Ocean.

The jet's interior is padded to protect the weightless fliers and equipped with cameras to record their adventure. Normally, the plane conducts 10 to 15 plunges for its passengers who pay $3,750 for the ride, although that fee has been waived for Hawking.

After the jet has reached its proper altitude, Hawking's assistants will lift him out of his chair and lay him on his back in the front of the cabin for the first plunge.

Other plunges will be made only after the two doctors and three nurses who are accompanying him have made sure he is enjoying it. He will not have his wheelchair and talking computer on the jet with him, although his assistant will bring a laptop and a card with the letters of the alphabet in case Hawking wants to communicate beyond facial expressions.

"We consider ... having him weightless for 25 seconds is a successful mission," said Peter Diamandis, chairman and CEO of Zero Gravity. "If we do more than one, fantastic."

Gary A. Leo, president and CEO of the ALS Association, said there should be no medical concerns with someone who has the condition going on a zero-gravity flight, although any person who does should consult a physician.

Hawking, a mathematics professor at the University of Cambridge, has done groundbreaking work on black holes and the origins of the universe, making him one of the best-known theoretical physicists of his generation. He is also known for his book "A Brief History of Time."

He has an ulterior motive for going on the flight other than the personal thrill of being weightless - Hawking believes in the importance of private space ventures and the need to reduce the cost of space tourism so that it's accessible to more people.

"I am hopeful that if we can engage this mass market, the cost of space flight will drop and we will be able to gain access to the resources of space and also spread humanity beyond just Earth," he said. "Sooner or later, some disaster may wipe out life on Earth. The long-term survival of the human race requires that we spread into space."

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