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UC San Diego's 'ZeroGDoc' Recalls Flight with Stephen Hawking  

March 15, 2018
By Cynthia Dillon

It was the flight of a lifetime for the University of California San Diego’s Erik Viirre, who embarked upon a zero gravity journey with none other than the late Stephen Hawking. It was April 26, 2007, when Viirre, associate director of the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination and adjunct professor in the Departments of Neurosciences, Surgery and Cognitive Science at UC San Diego, was invited to be the medical lead for a project of the Zero Gravity Corporation. The company offers flights with weightlessness, and on this particular adventure it wanted to provide Hawking with the feeling of going to space.

Stephen Hawking during zero gravity flight. Photo courtesy of Erik Viirre

“I was invited by my friend Peter Diamandis, and we had a fantastic medical team,” said Viirre, a specialist in the treatment of diseases of the semicircular canals of the inner ear—our gravity sensors—earning

him the in-flight handle “ZeroGDoc.” The medical team also included NASA flight surgeon James Vanderploeg and Hawking’s physicians, Ian McKenzie and Edwin Chilvers. “We collaborated with the Zero G staff and worked with their plan for Professor Hawking’s safety and for a great experience.”

The day before the flight, the crew held a practice flight to work out all the procedures. That evening, they listened to a speech by Hawking during which they heard his “voice” tell his own story.

On the day of flight, Viirre said that they flew from the Kennedy Space Center, using the same runway as the space shuttles. Viirre said that the whole medical team was on board, immediately adjacent to Hawking, his assistants, Diamandis and astronaut Byron Lichtenberg, who maneuvered Hawking around during the weightless parabolas.

“We did the first one, and it was great! Our plan was to go one-by-one, up to six weightless intervals, with the approval of the doctors and as long as Stephen was happy,” recalled Viirre. “He was so excited that he told his staff he didn’t want to stop, so we did two extras for a total of about four minutes.”

In addition to being a member of the medical-monitoring team, Viirre performed another special task involving a piece of fruit. One of the flight passengers noticed an apple in a basket and suggested that it be floated, weightless, as a tribute to Sir Isaac Newton—Hawking’s predecessor at the University of Cambridge with the same academic job: Lucasian Professor of Physics. Since Viirre was close by, he was the apple launcher—strategically timing the fruit’s release for best effect.

When the flight ended, the crew and Hawking traveled by bus to a press conference. While on the bus, Hawking wrote a speech using his special computer controlled by eye movement.

“I sat behind him and watched the words come out,” said Viirre.  “His first words were ‘It was Amazing!’”    

Later, the medical team celebrated the flight’s success and published an article entitled, “Zero G in a patient with advanced amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.” The article was printed in the medical journal, “The Lancet.” (August 2007).

Erik Viirre (left) with zero gravity flight members and Stephen Hawking.
Photo courtesy of Erik Viirre

 “Hawking was a great promoter of science in the service of humanity,” said Viirre. “He wrote books with his eyes, and he was one of the greatest thinkers of our time. His legacy of understanding the cosmos will live for eternity.”

In December 2017, Viirre presented the Arthur C. Clarke Foundation Award for Lifetime Achievement to Stephen Hawking in the presence of explorer and Apollo Astronaut Buzz Aldrin.

The Clarke Center at UC San Diego is home to The Clarion Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers' Workshop and part of the Division of Physical Sciences.

Special Note from the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination:

Stephen Hawking has been a constant in our scientific and cultural landscape, a symbol of the power of the human imagination and a powerful force for advancing the pursuit of science and contemplating our existence in the cosmos. Like our namesake, Sir Arthur C. Clarke, Hawking asked us to constantly test the limits of the possible by pushing past them, into the impossible. Only last December, he accepted the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Lifetime Achievement, during which he said, “It is no small task to be judged as having met with what would have been Arthur’s expectations for intellectual rigor powered by imagination, insatiable curiosity and concern for our planet and its inhabitants.” He will be missed, but his legacy will endure and inspire generations to come.

Physical Sciences

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Cynthia Dillon
(858) 822-0142