Stephen Hawking to Venture into Space in 2009

British newspaper The Daily Telegraph reports that the renowned scientist and author Stephen Hawking has vowed to take a trip into space in 2009. Virgin Galactic will begin taking passengers into space on SpaceShipTwo beginning in 2008. Sir Richard Branson, the owner of Virgin Galactic has promised to waive the ticket fee of £100,000 for Hawking’s flight.

Professor Hawking was diagnosed with motor neuron disease (MND) at the age of 21 and told he had at best one or two years left to live. He is one of only a few long-term survivors of MND in the world. Confined to a wheelchair, he uses one of his facial muscles and a pair of specialized glasses to activate his voice synthesizer for communication purposes. Hawking is well-known for his best-selling book A Brief History of Time, which has sold more than 10 million copies.

Hawking will take a zero-gravity flight in 2007 as preparation for his voyage into space. A zero-gravity flight, in which the aircraft descends quickly enough to generate negative Gs, can create a temporarily weightless environment. The result is very similar to being in the weightless or gravity-free environment of space. Before a person can qualify to fly a Virgin Galactic spacecraft into orbit, they must first complete a series of medical exams and physically demanding tests. One of those tests involves flying on the WhiteKnightTwo aircraft that will simulate the zero-gravity of space flight.

SpaceShipTwo should be ready for testing in 2007, and commercial flights are scheduled to begin in 2009 on the VSS (Virgin Spaceship) Enterprise spacecraft. Prior to entering space, the craft will launch from a mother ship at 50,000′. The maximum altitude will be about 360,000′ with a top speed attained of 2,500 mph. That’s more than three times the speed of sound.