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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Stephen Hawking Experiences Zero Gravity

CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida -- British physicist Stephen Hawking took a flight Thursday that gave the scientist, who is confined to a wheelchair, a taste of the weightlessness of space.

Hawking, 65, and an entourage of caretakers took off from the space shuttle's runway at the Kennedy Space Center in a specially modified jet that dives through the sky to give passengers an experience of zero gravity.

They returned to the space center in Florida about two hours later.

Hawking acknowledged before the flight that experiencing weightlessness, even for a few seconds, would be sweet relief from the bondage of a daily life immobilized by a debilitating and irreversible neuromuscular disorder.

"I have been wheelchair-bound for almost four decades and the chance to float free in zero G will be wonderful," Hawking said before the flight.

The acclaimed cosmologist and best-selling author of "A Brief History of Time," who has posited theories to help explain black holes and other celestial phenomena, lost his ability for natural speech after a tracheotomy that followed a bout of pneumonia in 1985.

In a reference to his affliction, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease, Hawking said his flight also would serve as a demonstration that "everybody can participate in this type of experience."

He speaks with the aid of a computer-controlled voice synthesizer.

Hawking said Wednesday that he feared that the human race did not have a future if it did not go into space.

"I therefore want to encourage public interest in space," he said.

Flight participants experience at least one free-fall, lasting about 25 seconds, where they float up from the floor. The maneuver is accomplished as the plane flies toward the ground following a steep climb.

When asked about the prospects of intelligent life beyond Earth, Hawking said he hoped that it exists.

"There is not much sign of it on Earth," he added.