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Astrophysicist Hawking To Try Out Weightlessness

Astrophysicist Stephen Hawking. Photo courtesy AFP.
by Jean-Louis Santini
Washington (AFP) March 1, 2007
Paralyzed British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking, author of the blockbuster "A Brief History of Time," will get a brief plane trip to weightlessness next month, a US company announced Thursday. Hawking will experience the zero-gravity sensation of outer space in a flight he hopes will lead to a 2009 rocket voyage into the cosmos, Zero Gravity Corporation said.

Hawking, who has made numerous prize-winning contributions to cosmological research, will travel aboard the private Zero Gravity flight on April 26 in a trip similar to those astronauts have taken.

"As someone who has studied gravity and black holes all of my life, I am excited to experience, firsthand, weightlessness and a zero-gravity environment," Hawking said in the company's statement.

"I am thankful to Zero Gravity Corporation for making this experience available to the general public, especially for disabled individuals," said the professor at the University of Cambridge in Britain.

The 90-minute flight on a modified 35-passenger Boeing 727-200 will take off from the shuttle landing facility at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The plane will soar up at a 45-degree angle to about 10,000 meters (33,000 feet) before plunging to 2,500 meters (8,000 feet) to give the passengers about 30 seconds of gravity-free flying.

The aircraft undertakes these maneuvers a dozen times, providing a total of about five minutes in different levels of diminished gravity -- that of Mars, one-third the gravity of Earth; of the moon, with one-sixth Earth's gravity, and then the zero-gravity level of space.

The plane, called G-Force One, is the only Federal Aviation Administration-approved weightless flight experience available to the general public, said the company, based in Florida and Las Vegas, Nevada.

Zero Gravity has operated the flights on a commercial basis since 2004, selling tickets for 3,750 dollars each. It said some 2,500 people have taken the trip, with ages ranging from 12 to 85.

Hawking, 65, who is nearly fully paralyzed by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's Disease), will take the trip with three doctors and four assistants to help hold him during the flight, Peter Diamandis, the head and co-founder of Zero Gravity, said in an interview with AFP.

With Hawking signed up, Zero Gravity is giving a number of tickets for the flight to charities to auction off as fundraisers. Among the beneficiaries are Easter Seals, the Starlight Starbright Children's Foundation, Augie's Quest and the X Prize Foundation, the company said.

Hawking, who is the Lucasian Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge University -- a post once held by Sir Isaac Newton -- was diagnosed with the muscle-wasting condition motor neuron disease at the age of 22. He is in a wheelchair and speaks with the aid of a computer and voice synthesizer.

His work has centered on theoretical cosmology and quantum gravity, looking at the nature of such subjects as space-time, the "Big Bang" theory and black holes.

In January, Hawking said he wants to fly into space in 2009 aboard the Virgin Galactic spacecraft being developed for private space tourism by British entrepreneur Richard Branson.

Source: Agence France-Presse

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Impossible For Great Wall To Be Visible With Naked Eye From From Space
Beijing (XNA) Mar 02, 2007
Chinese scientists have reopened the debate on whether or not the Great Wall is visible from space with the human eye, labeling it "impossible". In a report published in Chinese science magazine Science and Technology Review, Dai Changda, Jiang Xiaoguang and Xi Xiaohuan, all researchers with the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), argue that the claim, made by American and Russian astronauts, defies the laws of biological science.

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