In an interview with ITV’s Good Morning Britain, renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking revealed that he would be heading into space with commercial spaceline Virgin Galactic.
“I have already completed a zero-gravity flight which allowed me to float, weightless,” Hawking said. “But my ultimate ambition is to fly into space. I thought no one would take me, but Richard Branson has offered me a seat on Virgin Galactic and I said ‘yes’ immediately.”
Sir Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic’s founder, expressed a wish to send Hawking to the stars as recently as 2015.
“Professor Stephen Hawking is one of the people I admire most in the world, an undisputed genius who has opened our eyes to the wonders of the universe, while also happening to be a kind and delightful man,” Branson said in a statement at the time. “He is the only person I have given a free ticket with Virgin Galactic, and he is signed up to fly as a Future Astronaut with us if his health permits it.”
A trip into space would likely be some years into the future and would not be without complications for the 75-year-old cosmologist. Professor Hawking’s health is of significant concern as he has lived with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) since the age of 21. The motor neuron disease kickstarts a degenerative process which affects the nerves in the brain and spinal cord, particularly the nerves that govern muscle movement. Otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, the disease is named for the 1939 Hall of Fame baseball player who forged a public battle with ALS, ultimately succumbing to it at age 37.
The launch, scientists hope, should yield vital information on the effect of gravity on motor neurons. The g-force, or acceleration due to gravity at the Earth’s surface, is 1 g; our mobility and organ function has adapted to the conditions here. As space flight becomes more accessible, humans will be exposed to different kinds of gravity conditions. Gravity biologists are already investigating how “altering gravity can have profound effects on the body, particularly the development of muscles, but the reasons and biology behind gravity’s effect are not fully known.”