The Zero Gravity Corporation took Stephen Hawking on a £1,875 flight in a modified jet to experience weightlessness on Wednesday amidst major media curiosity. He was regarded as the most convincing salesman for the world’s fledgling space tourism industry, for he is the man who has opened the lid on the mysteries of the cosmos for a mass audience.
The Corporation, which has so far flown more than 2,500 passengers on its 90-minute weightlessness flights from Cape Canaveral in Florida, and from Las Vegas, waived the fee for Professor Hawking — in return receiving global exposure for its brand from the massed ranks of media following the event.
It is said the British theoretical physicist is at the vanguard of a stampede by paying customers —mostly male billionaires — to establish a multibillion-pound business in space tourism.
Hawking, who has had motor neurone disease for four decades, floated free for 25 seconds at a time as the aircraft flew a series of plunging dives over the Florida coast. Unrestricted by his wheelchair, the Cambridge University professor found himself freed from the laws of gravity in the company of a medical team monitoring his condition.
On his return he was cheered by the ground staff and received by one of the hostesses. Speaking before the flight in a Boeing 727, padded throughout to protect its gravity-defying payload, the 65-year-old said, “I have wanted to fly in space all of my life. For someone like me whose muscles don’t work very well, it will be bliss to be weightless. I want to demonstrate to the public that anybody can participate in this type of weightless experience.”
Professor Hawking, who is also scheduled to fly with Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic sub-orbital craft when it enters service in 2009, revealed a fascination with the industry.
“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.”
Sir Richard, who is investing £100m in Virgin Galactic, has signed up 200 people for the two-and-a-half-hour flights from a £125m space port in New Mexico. Passengers will experience four minutes of weightlessness, and admire the curvature of the Earth. In return, they will pay £100,000 per flight. It is expected that up to 3,000 passengers will travel in the first five years, raising some £300m. Eventually it is hoped the cost of the flights will fall to £10,000.