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Stephen Hawking in space

British billionaire Richard Branson says he's sending over a medical officer to talk with physicist Stephen Hawking about getting him into space. That's how the founder of Virgin Galactic responded to Hawking's comment that "maybe Richard Branson will help" him achieve his long-held goal of reaching the final frontier, even though he's a quadriplegic who needs a blink-controlled computer to communicate.

Getty Images file
Stephen Hawking is

arguably the world's best-

known living physicist.

Branson and other Virgin executives indicated today that if there's any way on earth to accommodate the good doctor-with-a-disability, they'll do it. And for practice, Hawking could conceivably experience weightlessness aboard a Zero Gravity Corp. plane as early as next year.

It would be one giant leap for the world's best-known physicist - and a powerful signal of support for other people with disabilities.

Hawking, who has been coping with a degenerative nerve disease for decades and now spends most of his waking hours in a high-tech wheelchair, is famous for his theoretical work on black holes and other space curiosities. He's also a major-league space geek, going so far as to play a virtual version of himself on "Star Trek: The Next Generation." For months he's been dropping hints about going beyond mere theorizing and play acting, by flying to the edge of space on one of Branson's yet-to-be-built suborbital spaceships.

Today's public reference to Branson was the most explicit hint to date, and the rebel billionaire responded in a statement e-mailed by his office:

"Obviously we would be honoured to have Stephen fly with Virgin Galactic. We have a great medical team and we are planning to have our Chief Medical Officer sit down with Stephen, and we will do everything in our power to make his dream of going to space possible. But at the end of the day, it will be Stephen's decision, and it goes without saying we would be delighted to have him onboard."

Virgin Galactic is targeting the start of its $200,000-per-seat service for late 2008 or 2009, so there's plenty of time to make the arrangements. The company's head of astronaut relations, Stephen Attenborough, told me that Virgin has been in touch with Hawking in the past and will be following through on today's exchange.

"We're going to be making contact with Stephen in the next few days," Attenborough said.

For some time, Virgin Galactic has been working through the issues that need to be addressed in order to accommodate people with disabilities on suborbital spaceflights, Attenborough said. Because current regulations call for suborbital passengers to fly at their own risk, "there's probably no regulatory reason we couldn't fly anyone, with informed consent," he said. However, Virgin wants to make sure that its spaceflights are as safe as possible - a stance laid out in this passage from the recently published book "Kids to Space":

Q: What are Virgin Galactic's plans for taking disabled people to space?A: According to Virgin Galactic, "We absolutely want and expect to be able to take disabled people to space. We do not need people to be super-fit, and there will be many physical conditions that will be no issue whatsoever. Unlike manned space travel to date, we will be looking to screen people in, not screen people out. However, it is incredibly important for the future of the industry that we fly people safely, so there will be restrictions that center around heart and circulatory conditions, and anything that prevents people from complying with emergency procedures … particularly being able to exit the vehicle quickly."That last concern would be the key sticking point for Hawking's flight - and would no doubt be a subject for discussion with Virgin Galactic's medical team. One way to address that concern would be for an assistant or two to accompany him on the spaceflight. The assistants could place the physicist in his seat, ride along with him to the peak altitude in excess of 62 miles (more than 100 kilometers), guide him through the weightless portion of the flight, then settle him back in the seat for the landing.All this assumes that Hawking could withstand the G-forces associated with the trip. Again, that's something for the medical team to judge. But if all the arrangements work out, Attenborough said having Hawking aboard SpaceShipTwo would recognize the physicist's "unique contribution" to science - and serve as a "really great demonstration" that disabilities needn't stand in the way of outer-space dreams."One of the key objectives has always been to make space as inclusive as possible. ... If there's one person we would love to realize the dream for, it would be Stephen," Attenborough said.Noah McMahon, chief marketing officer for Zero Gravity Corp., said experiencing weightlessness could be a particularly liberating experience for people with disabilities. "If you're bound to a wheelchair, there's nothing more exciting than being able to float free," McMahon told me.Zero Gravity gives customers that weightless feeling over and over again, for about a half-minute at a time, on planes that fly a series of special parabolic maneuvers. The package costs $3,750 per seat.McMahon said Zero Gravity has already flown several of the disabled, including a blind person, and is finishing up work with the Federal Aviation Administration on procedures for accommodating paraplegics and quadriplegics. "We've just gone through all the steps we had to go through in order to make that happen," McMahon said.Again, the main concern would be moving wheelchair-using fliers between their seats and the open space used for floating. Such fliers would be required to have one or two assistants, depending on their mobility, McMahon said.McMahon said he expects that Hawking as well as other wheelchair users would be welcome to come aboard starting early next year."It's good timing," McMahon told me.