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Prof. Hawking Goes Weightless -- The True Story

In this blog, I want to share with you how I overcame the risks involved in taking the world-famous wheelchair-bound physicist Stephen Hawking on a zero-gravity flight.

Doing anything bold and significant in life requires taking risks. And one of the biggest risks I took this past decade was flying the world-famous physicist into zero-gravity.

This blog is the first time I'm speaking about the behind-the-scenes story of those risks and the countermeasures we took. What might have seemed easy from the outside world, was not in any fashion in its execution.

Back in 2007, I had the opportunity to meet Professor Stephen Hawking through the +X PRIZE Foundation. In my first conversation with him I learned that he was passionate about flying into space someday. I told him that while I couldn't get him into orbit, I could offer him the chance to fly aboard our specially modified Boeing 727 and experience weightlessness. After all, the idea of flying the world's "greatest expert in gravity" into zero-gravity was too good to be true. He said yes immediately -- or for as long as it took him to type out the letters on his machine.

In 2007, I had been running Zero-G for almost 14 years. Co-founded in 1993 with astronaut Byron Lichtenberg and NASA scientist +Ray Cronise, it had been a very, very long startup. It had taken us nearly 11 years to get permission from the FAA to offer the general public the experience of weightlessness (our first flight was in September 2004).

Meeting with my team, we brainstormed making the flight into a fundraiser for ALS (Hawking's motor neuron disease is related to ALS, or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis). Hawking quickly agreed and we sent out a press release the very next day saying, "Zero G to fly Stephen Hawking into weightlessness to raise funds for ALS." I had expected nothing but positive reaction. But what happened next shocked me. I received two phone calls. One came from our airline partner saying, "You're crazy. You're going to be flying this guy who has been in a wheelchair for 40 years and there's a good chance he might get injured." The other came from a friend at the FAA who said, "You know the rules under which you are operating require that anyone flying must be certified 'able-bodied' and I can't imagine anyone here would view Prof Hawking as able-bodied." On top of that, I had a number of people in the commercial space world approach me saying that this was a bad idea, that a major accident could set back everything we had been working toward for decades.

I was in a quandary. I had started Zero-G specifically to broaden the public for access to weightlessness. Commercializing space was all about giving the experience to a much broader audience, especially amazing people like Prof. Hawking. To be told "no" was all the more reason to figure out how to make it happen. The challenge was getting there without aggravating the FAA lawyers and also making sure the flight was indeed safe for the world's most famous physicist.

It took me six months, many phone calls with lawyers, my friends at the FAA, our aircraft partner and a number of physicians... but we finally got there.

The first thing we did was ask the question, "Who determines if someone is able-bodied?" The second question we asked is how we could maximize Hawking's chances of safety.

The answer to the first question, in our opinion, was that the only folks qualified to judge Hawking's physical health status were his own personal physicians, and perhaps experts from the space-medicine world. So after purchasing liability and malpractice insurance policies for a few (not disclosed here) physicians, we were able to submit three letters to the FAA stating without question, that Hawking was "able-bodied" for the Zero-G flight.

Regarding the second question about safety, we decided to turn the forward half of the G-ForceOne (our special weightless 727 aircraft) into a mobile emergency room able to deal with any slew of medical conditions that might arise. We also decided to conduct a practice flight with a stand-in for Dr. Hawking on whom we would practice a series of zero-g healthcare maneuvers... everything from CPR to electroshock conversion.

With this plan in place and a final blessing from all concerned parties I set out to make this happen. Here's what happened next:

- We sold about 20 tickets at $15,000 each from donors and raised about $150,000 for ALS. At the same time, we covered our costs for the flight and press conference. (The flight was also sponsored by Spaceport Florida and by Sharper Image.)

- We flew a practice run the day before the actual flight. All of the paying donors got to fly on this flight as well, and float around and enjoy the experience (the next day, they'd be concentrating on observing Hawking during the flight).

- As a stand-in for Hawking during these "medical test runs," we found a 15-year old high-school boy who had a passion for physics and who was roughly the same height and weight as Hawking. He was put in a wheelchair, told not not to move a muscle, and we practiced what to do if Hawking had a heart attack and tachycardia or suffered a broken bone. These were things at risk: Hawking is very frail.

- Onboard we had four physicians and two nurses monitoring the 15-year-old's heart rate, blood pressure, Po2 and breathing at the same time that they ran through all of their emergency medical procedures in zero g.

But the day of the flight was extraordinary.

The entire event took place at the +NASA's Kennedy Space Center on the 15,000-foot-long Shuttle Landing Facility (SLF) -- one of the longest runways in the world. That morning in front of hundreds of reporters, we held a press conference announcing our intention to conduct "a least a single 30-second parabola" (normally on a consumer zero-g flight, we do about 15 in total). We chose to do a pre-flight press conference because, frankly, we had no idea what shape Hawking would be in at the end of the day.

What stood out most in my mind that morning, was his answer to the press conference question: "Professor Hawking, why are you doing this flight?"

This was Hawking's answer: "Life on Earth is at the ever-increasing risk of being wiped out by a disaster…  I think the human race doesn't have a future if it doesn't go into space. I therefore want to encourage public interest in space."

We boarded Hawking on his wheelchair using a scissor lift, then carried him off his wheelchair into one of the seats for takeoff. Once we reached cruising altitude of 24,000 feet, we carried him to the front of the airplane and lay him on top of pre-positioned padding and pillows. At Hawking's feet was my partner and two-time astronaut Byron Lichtenberg. I was at Hawking's head. As we entered the first parabolic arc and Hawking floated into the air, the entire airplane erupted into cheers. Thirty people in the back of the plane were hooping and hollering. Hawking was free of his wheelchair and the bounds of gravity for the first time in over 40 years. While his entire body is paralyzed, he does have use of a few facial muscles, and the smile that expressed his emotion was extraordinary. He looked like a kid floating in zero-g. After the first parabola, when we returned to normal gravity, I looked over to the lead physicians monitoring his vitals. Apparently everything was rock solid and I was given the thumbs-up to proceed.  While my original intention was to do at least one parabola, at most, perhaps three, Hawking wanted to keep going. At the end we finished up doing eight parabolas, with Hawking still raring to go.

Hawking was so filled with energy that after we landed he even did a post-flight press conference. The result was front-page press worldwide.

Again, doing anything significantly big and bold in life requires taking risks. This was a big one for me personally and for the company. One question people ask me is how do you know when to take a big risk? My answer is twofold:

1. If the risk is fully aligned with your purpose and mission, then it's worth considering. In this case, flying people like Hawking is exactly why we had created Zero G.

2. Second, you need to do everything you can to retire as much of the risk as reasonable, such that you can honestly say that you covered all of the situations you were most concerned about.

I get demoralized by organizations that start off with a mission and pull back when they find it's risky. I view risk-aversion as crippling America in many ways. Most people (and politicians) forget that 500 years ago, thousands of people risked (and gave) their lives to cross the Atlantic and settle America. And then, again, 200 years ago they did the same to settle the West.

For me, Stephen Hawking's flight also allowed us to pioneer the ability to take handicapped people into weightlessness and a year later we had the opportunity to take a group of six wheelchair-bound teenagers into zero gravity. These were kids who had never walked a day in their lives. Their experiencing the ability to fly like Superman around the airplane without their wheelchairs was remarkable.

Ultimately when you are doing something new, you have to ask yourself is it worth the risk to you? Is it something that you're willing to bet everything on? If you're doing something big and bold that's sometimes what it takes.

Zero-G today has flown over 12,000 people into zero gravity. The company operates flights in cities across the U.S. The ticket price is $5,000 -- reasonable when you think of the 11 years of start-up time! If you're interested in flying, you can find more on the company's website: www.GoZeroG.com. It is a truly remarkable experience and worth every penny!

In my next blog I'm going to teach you one of the most important fundraising lessons I ever learned. It's worked for me for over 30 years. It's something you need to know, too.

NOTE: As always, I would love your help in co-creating BOLD, and will happily acknowledge you as a "contributing author" for your input. Please share with me (and the community) in the comments below what you specifically found most interesting, what you disagree with and any similar stories or examples that reinforce this blog that I might use as examples in writing BOLD. Thank you!
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33 comments
 
Please see my accompanying album for two photos from this incredible event.
 
Thank you Peter for your intense unwavering courage and determination to imagine a thing worth doing, buck batteries of seemingly impossible obstacles and so-called practicality to reach for and carry out this beautifully worthwhile enterprise.  Bravo!
 
Thanks a lot Peter for your insight story, and what it means to make the "impossible" a "reality" :-)
 
Truly uplifting and inspiring alttitudinal attitude. Thanks for  sharing Peter
 
Thinking out of the box!!! 

I really like this!!!!  Congratulations.  
 
That is something all of us need to understand, as you learn us:  
Taking Risks is a great opportunity for improve ourselves and the humanity...

Just take control of the Risk and fly!!!
 
It warms my heart to see the gaping grin on Stephen Hawking's face.
 
Amazing and inspiring! Nothing is impossible. Thank you very much.
 
I was having a rough night, couldn't sleep.  Hopped on my email and there was your story!  It gave me such peace knowing that someone who also has life challenges was able to have this astronomical experience - I went back to bed and right back to sleep!
Thank you Peter!
 
My son, Matt Bowes, wanted nothing more in life than to see mankind go into space. He made it there before all of us in 2007. My mother succumbed to ALS. They are both smiling down on us now and give you a big thank you. As do I, as I take on new risks.
 
On the subject of taking risks, it could be considered a risk attempting to start two or more companies at the same time when you have little experience as an entrepreneur.  I am wondering to what extent this might or might not be considered a factor if you can find people willing to work with you in the context of, say, at least one of them.

More on topic, one business I want to start actually bears quite a few similarities with your zero-G business, though I hadn't thought about it that way before.  Fear plays a large role in our society.  I appreciate your story.
 
Courage is not something you get - it is something you give - to yourself.  It comes from within and is expressed through 'right action'.  Thanks Peter for showing us how.
 
Thank you for a beautiful concrete example of overcoming the neg bugs, naysayers and DreamStealers.  Live With Intention, DrBillToth.com/blog
 
This is nic, I wish  can go to space oneday, i always think about it, and i don't know how to get it rigthway, but You have let me know that it is posible, i know too that everything we wont to know, it is possible to know, but all is our motivation, and i wish to get some one like you to help me to rich my goals.
 
"It is better by noble boldness to run the risk of being subject to half the evils we anticipate than to remain in  cowardly listlessness for fear of what might happen."Herodotus 
Thank you, Peter,for sharing  your inspiring story.Indeed, it is a great example of courage and determination.
 
Thank you Peter for sharing this story. I have spent the last year starting my first two businesses and writing a book as a means of promoting the green building community that I intend to create. There have been several setbacks, but none that I haven't over came. Today was one of those setback days, but reading this post has reignited my resolve. Sometimes setbacks are simply a way of the universe sending a signal that you have a few bases left to cover before proceeding. Your second answer to the question of when to take big risks really spoke to me. Cheers
 
nothing is impossible to humans.. history has proven it repeatedly..
 
Very inspiring and educational.  Thank you, Peter, for continuing to create our future!
 
Obviosly I realy like to go space one day ,as you said what every  we won't to do, the first is risk taking, I don't realy know the meaning of philosopy ontil this year, i have beain discover somthing on 2002 concern riligion and scienc doring when i use to go to church, one penticostal church, well I have allready study with Jehaves Witness, I was born bye Father who is methodist church faith and Mother of cathlic church . my Father bilived all faith. my 2002 discover of religion and and science has let me know that we all can do it but we need those who know the truth to give us positive dirctions. and i know that u are  one  of them. Mr. Diamandis, i am very greatful to her someone who has the faith i have , i told one Ghanaian men in Spain when i was teling him that what ever we won't to do on this Earth if you serch for it you will get it, the man didn't ignor me but He told me that God will use me to do great thing i don't realy know it but i know that ther is spirit that always opreat in me , on they i was working in the street on my meditation, somthing just come to my brain that when you get this, you can do everything, at that moment i become to reilize  that all the realigion spirit anointed one wer science that is the day i started to sospected JEHOVES WINTNESISS as scientis, I started to make inverstigation with them about their FAITH , obviosly it was not what i realy like, but once i didn't get someone to let me know the fact ,well, I didn't opos them, I filt that all religions are worship one God bcs i have be in defrent churches, end similer feelings I always get from it all is my faith , ontil i started to read your laws it is wonderfull to get some one like as one of those who are making God inpact on Human History, I wish to be like you , just resentry i wach how many wer predicted consern end of the world i had similer vision but defrent understanding on it, for me porsonaly, I  don't realy know how others opinion, i told some of my friends that the wold is going to chenge but not distroy as they says. last year was a year that i become to understand maney things in spiritual as well as phisical and how this wold in gerneral is roll, and i am very glad for little that i have acheved, will i was among of those who got the information about your book abaundance , i didn't get money to other it but i let some of my friends know it and they recomand it as inspirtion book. the book apear when i have bein home for almos 3 years withaut work, so i cudn't  even oder books that i have to get to sturdy but yet i am still develop my psychic so that i can be whom i wont to be, and my aim is to be whom i have to be, so that together we can contribut idies to help han in hans to make our planet a beter place for all. i know that we have many scientist , philosophy  or Astrologys that they don't realy know that they are serch people includ me. if you people help me to be whom i wont to be i think i can use my experienc to help maney at Africa.
 
Truly moving story. Too many morals in this story to list them all. I'll just memorize the whole thing then...
 
Very inspiring - thank you!  There is so much more many of us can be doing to expand possibility and opportunity.
 
Wow! What a thrilling experience even for those who are just reading about this! Yes "doing anything significantly big and bold in life requires taking risks!" and those who never take risks never accomplish anything in life. Thank you for the inspiration.
 
I cant imagine seeing the smile on Prof. Hawking's face during the first parabola! Very inspiring Peter!
 
The story is fascinating and all players took a great risk. It is inspiring that Prof. Hawking did this for encouraging public interest in space.  
 
This story ended up on my desk this week and since we had our "10 year anniversary" of working together yesterday I was finally able to read it today. Professor Hawking's Zero G flight is a remarkable story, but what I think is even more important, is the mention of the six wheelchair-bound teenagers. The bold risk taken by you and your team with a high profile individual (wealth not being relevant since it was a fundraiser) was what it took to open the door for the unnamed youth, who are hopefully inspired by their unique experience. I would love to hear how this changed their lives. I think this parallels the upcoming suborbital market as it will be wealthy people, high profile individuals (for PR), or of course lucky contest winners soaked in Axe drinking 7-Up flying first, followed by the "general public" (if the price drops or financial mechanisms are capitalized on). Keep up the great work and taking on the biggest risk, trying to inspire us all!

Space!
Ryan
www.RyInSpace.com
@RyInspace
 
+Ryan Kobrick Great point, I think the six wheelchair-bound individuals were probably just as excited as Prof. Hawking!
 
What was powerful for me in this story are the questions you and your team asked that enabled you to move past the risks others were telling you were impossible to move past. Asking, "Who determines if someone is able-bodied?" created an opening that made the flight possible. I think the key to being BOLD and being successful is learning the right questions to ask that can move you forward past the fears that are raised by others and by ourselves. Thanks for all you do to show us new questions to ask.
 
This is awesome!! I really love this story and I tell it to everyone :)
 
As an able-bodied PADI certified dive master, I find physically challenged divers inspiring!!
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