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Stephen Hawking is going to be sent up on the vomit comet, a specially modified plane that allows its passengers to experience weightlessness. The trip is courtesy of operating firm Zero Gravity, which has waived its normal $3,000 fee for the good professor.

Passengers on the specially modified Boeing 727 experience free-fall during the flight, exactly matching the sensation of being in "zero" gravity in orbit around Earth.

The plane flies in a series of parabolas; long, steep arcs of ascent and descent with a weightless period at each peak lasting between 20 and 40 seconds.

Hawking will be accompanied by two doctors and three nurses who will check him for any ill effects after the first "dive". Zero Gravity says it will consider the mission a success if they get Hawking weightless for around 25 seconds. Any more than that will be a bonus.

The Cambridge physicist is evidently looking forward to the experience. He has made no secret of the fact that he believes humanity's future lies on other planets, and his fascination with space goes beyond his professional interest. Indeed, the man who made black holes mainstream also has a reservation on a sub-orbital flight scheduled for 2009.

The BBC quotes him as saying: "I have wanted to fly in space all of my life. For someone like me whose muscles don't work very well, it will be bliss to be weightless." ®

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