How a Longview professor helped Stephen Hawking 'fly'

How a Longview professor helped Stephen Hawking 'fly'
Professor Hawking called his experience wonderful. (Source: ZeroG)

TYLER, TX (KLTV) - An East Texas professor who helped Dr. Stephen Hawking experience the weightlessness of space said Wednesday that it "was an honor."

Hawking, a brilliant and world-renowned physicist, died Tuesday at his home in Cambridge, England. He was 76.

On Wednesday, Dr. Byron Lichtenberg, a LeTourneau University professor and NASA astronaut, recalled the day in 2007 when "Hawking's people" telephoned the business he had founded with Peter Diamandis.

"We were contacted by Dr. Hawking's people who said that he had an interest in wanting to fly on our Zero G airplane," Lichtenberg said. "He'd been in a wheelchair for about 40 years, and this would be an experience and an opportunity for him to get out of that wheelchair and just float free, so we did our due diligence and put together a package, and were able to make that happen."

Lichtenberg and Diamandis own Zero Gravity, a company that offers the public a chance to experience weightlessness above the earth inside a modified Boeing 727.

In 2007, the duo took Hawking to his beloved stars. Well, close to them, anyway.

"You could just see the grin on his face, it was ear to ear," Lichtenberg said.

The Zero G airplane is a modified Boeing 727 that is flown between 30,000 and 50,000 feet in the air. A series of dives create 20 to 25 seconds of weightlessness inside the cabin.

"It's like going on the top of a rollercoaster, you know you get that kind of 'haha' moment?" Lichtenberg said.

Hawking, diagnosed with Amytrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) when he was 21 years old, was confined to a wheelchair and completely dependent on others for everything.

But through Lichtenberg, Hawking found freedom in the sky. Photos and video from the flight show Lichtenberg and Diamandis on each side of a grinning, spinning Hawking.

"We orchestrated a means to get him up and kind of spin him around, almost like a barbecue spit kind of thing. We'd rotate him a few times, and then during pullouts we would put him down on the floor," Lichtenberg explained. "Amazing experience."

The astronaut said he had two space shuttle missions under his belt when he flew with Hawking, so they had a few things to talk about.

"It was humbling to be around him. I was happy to talk with him a little bit and tell him about my experience in space and doing research in space, and you know, telling him we were going to take care of him and being able to give him a really unique experience," Lichtenberg said. "That was really special."

The wealth of knowledge that died with Hawking is bittersweet to the veteran professor. Lichtenberg teaches project management, entrepreneurship and spacecraft design and operations at LETU in Longview.

"We have the knowledge that he has, but we don't have the future of him. What we've lost really is future discovery, future explorations, future scientific connections," he said.

Lichtenberg said he hopes the vacuum left by Hawking's death will inspire more people to join STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) research and activities.

To watch videos taken aboard Zero G, visit

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