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Hawking Follows Path Set By Heinlein's Waldo

In his 1942 story Waldo, Robert Heinlein writes about Waldo F. Jones, who has myasthenia gravis, a muscle disease. Waldo is helpless in a wheelchair or bed most of the time, with barely the strength of a toddler.

As an adult, he realized his dream of living in a house without gravity:

Waldo F. Jones seemed to be floating in thin air at the center of a spherical room. The appearance was caused by the fact that he was indeed floating in air. His house lay in a free orbit, with a period of just over twenty-four hours. No spin had been impressed on his home; the pseudo gravity of centrifugal force was the thing he wanted least. He had left Earth to get away from its gravitational field; he had not been down to the surface once in the seventeen years since his house was built and towed into her orbit; he never intended to do so for any purpose whatsoever.

Here, floating free in space in his own air-conditioned shell, he was almost free of the unbearable lifelong slavery to his impotent muscles. What little strength he had he could spend economically, in movement, rather than in fighting against the tearing, tiring weight of the Earth's thick field...

Famed mathematician Stephen Hawking seems to be headed in the same direction, for much the same reason. His body is almost completely immobilized due to the paralyzing disease ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease).

He uses a computer to "speak" in a synthesized voice by choosing words on a computer screen through an infrared sensor on a headpiece that detects motion in his cheek.

Hawking flew last Thursday on a modified jet that climbs to arouind 32,000 feet and then makes a parabolic dive to 24,000 feet, providing the experience of weightlessness for about 25 seconds. This plane performs the same maneuvers as the famed "Vomit Comet" (also known as the "Weightless Wonder"), a modified KC-135 long used by NASA to train astronauts.


(Stephen Hawking enjoys a few moments in zero G)

"As you can imagine, I'm very excited. I have been wheelchair bound for almost four decades. The chance to float free in zero-g will be wonderful.

I want to demonstrate to the public that anybody can participate in this type of weightless experience."

Hawking's personal physicians were on hand to make sure nothing went wrong. The physicist was attached to heart, blood pressure and oxygen-measuring monitors during the flight. Medical equipment sufficient for a mini-intensive care unit also was on board, said Dr. Edwin Chilvers, Hawking's personal physician.

The astrophysicist hopes the zero-gravity flight is a step toward going on a suborbital flight, which may be offered by private space companies by the end of the decade. And then - who knows?

Read more at Space.com.

Scroll down for more stories in the same category. (Story submitted 4/27/2007)

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