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Come aboard, Dr. Hawking

World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking is considering an invitation to experience weightlessness - not yet aboard a spaceship, as he eventually hopes to do, but aboard a specially outfitted Boeing 727 jet that simulates the zero-gravity effect encountered in orbit. Will the quadriplegic genius do it? Stay tuned. ...

The invitation was sent by Zero Gravity Corp., in response to Hawking's comments last week that flying in space was his "next goal." A zero-G flight doesn't have quite the view that a spaceflight on Virgin Galactic's rocket plane would have - but it serves as good practice for the more ambitious flight, and it's a service that's available now.

Such weightless flights produce that floating (and sinking) feeling by flying a parabolic trajectory that gives passengers about 30 seconds of enclosed freefall at a time. It's not everyone's cup of tea: NASA's version of the plane came to be called the "Vomit Comet" because of the nausea-inducing ups and downs. But Zero Gravity has tried to smooth out the flight profile to minimize the risk of motion sickness - and antinausea medications definitely help as well.

The company is just finishing up the regulatory requirements for flying paraplegics and quadriplegics. Zero Gravity says it would arrange for Hawking to fly free - in more than one sense of the word - to recognize his contribution to science as well as to the disabled community.

"It'd be our honor to have him as our guest," Noah McMahon, the company's director of marketing, told me today. The flight requirements would call for Hawking to have a couple of assistants on board, but whether the physicist or Zero Gravity provides such assistants would be totally "up to him," McMahon said.

Zero Gravity's invitation isn't coming out of the blue. The company's founder, Peter Diamandis, knows Hawking through another connection. Diamandis is also founder and chairman of the X Prize Foundation, which has organized a $10 million genomics prize - and Hawking is one of the notables who has agreed to have his genome analyzed as part of the competition.

Zero Gravity has played host to celebrities before, ranging from moonwalker Buzz Aldrin to domestic diva Martha Stewart to a team of contestants from the reality-TV show "The Apprentice." But if Hawking were to take the trip, the alpha-geek angle - plus the signal it would send to other people with disabilities - would be hard to beat.

That's assuming that all the medical concerns - including the potential effect of increased G-forces on Hawking's frail body - can be addressed. Perhaps getting a zero-gravity experience at an altitude of merely 30,000 feet rather than 62 miles (100 kilometers) wouldn't be worth the risk. On the other hand, if Hawking is cleared for this small step, it would be a good practice run for the giant leap to the edge of space.

Hawking's personal assistant at the University of Cambridge, Judith Croasdell, confirmed that the good doctor was considering the invite.

"Indeed he has received this invitation and we are discussing it at the moment," she wrote me in an e-mail. "I am not at liberty to give out any information yet."