Picture of the Week: Stephen Hawking in Zero Gravity

The renowned physicist enjoyed the sensation of weightlessness while 24,000 feet over the Atlantic

On January 8, 2007, scientist Stephen Hawking did something special for his 65th birthday—he took a trip up into zero gravity. He rode in the Zero Gravity Corporation’s modified Boeing 727 jet, which traveled up to 24,000 feet over the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida and performed a series of dips that let Hawking experience a total of about four minutes of weightlesness. Because Hawking suffers from a degenerative nerve disease related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a medical support team was on hand to monitor his blood pressure and cardiac readings. But the renowned physicist held up even better than expected, negotiating for two additional 30-second rounds of weightlessness while in flight.

NASA has been using aircraft to simulate the zero-gravity environment of orbit for decades, and in 2004 the Zero Gravity Corporation became the first company to offer the experience to the general public. The sensation occurs as the plane climbs upward with a very steep pitch and then levels out—a little like the feeling you get at the top of a roller coaster—and lasts about 30 seconds at a time. The price tag: $4,950 plus tax.

Hawking took the flight in order to publicize the possibility of commercial space travel. “I believe that life on Earth is at an ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster such as sudden nuclear war, a genetically engineered virus, or other dangers. I think the human race has no future if it doesn’t go into space,” he said before the flight. Using the force of commerce, he believes, is the most practical way to eventually make mass space travel a real possibility.

After the flight, Hawking was exuberant, and discussed his hopes to someday fully enter earth’s orbit (Richard Branson, owner of the company Virgin Galactic, has said he will waive the $200,000 fee). “It was amazing. The zero-G part was wonderful, and the high-G part was no problem,” Hawking said. “I could have gone on and on. Space, here I come.”

Editor's Note, May 3, 2018: The original image accompanying this story was removed due to a copyright dispute.

Get the latest Science stories in your inbox.