Friday, April 27, 2007

Eloquent Eyebrows

Every so often, it's time to recalibrate my reasons to fear for my personal future. Having a good enough imagination to imagine all kinds of dire fates, I have to keep anxiety about the future on a short leash, preferably by translating worry into planning. Good pilots do that: have Plan A, Plan B, perhaps C, and plans for emergencies. By being prepared for most outcomes, you can fly—or exist—without wasting too much time and energy on anxiety. But I, for one, have always regarded the prospect of serious health issues as unvarnished doom.

This morning's Houston Chronicle had an article about the famous physicist Stephen Hawking experiencing weightlessness yesterday at Cape Canaveral.

Dressed in dark-blue flight suits, Hawking and an entourage of caretakers boarded a Boeing 727 that roared out over the ocean and carved huge parabolic arcs in the sky, creating for passengers the floating "zero-gravity" effect of being in outer space. While levitating, Hawking, who has been in a wheelchair for nearly four decades, was spun twice — pirouetting like a "gold-medal gymnast," a crew member said. Someone else floated an apple in the air alongside him in an allusion to Isaac Newton, whose esteemed chair Hawking now holds at Cambridge. Once each of the 25-second spells of zero gravity ended — as the plane headed to the bottom of each arc — assistants ensured that the celebrated physicist's body was lowered to a mattress on the plane's floor as gravity kicked back in.

I've had friends who rode the original weightlessness airplane: NASA's "Vomit Comet." It was not for the faint of stomach. For everybody who ever took to it like a duck to water, there were a lot of people who lost their lunch repeatedly, plus one or two poor people who crawled into a corner to be miserably sick the whole flight.

After one ride, crew members asked if he wanted to go again. Hawking dramatically raised his eyebrows in an emphatic yes.

Hawking sees the brief experience of weightlessness as a step toward space. He regards space travel as important for the long-term survival of the human race. And he wants to go into space himself some day. The paralysis from Lou Gehrig's disease is so severe that he talks with a speech synthesizer operated by twitches of his eyes. But he was game for eight roller-coaster climb-dive maneuvers. The article is accompanied by a photo of a weightless Hawking grinning widely.

But Hawking said ending a message about what people with disabilities can achieve was only a small part of his motivation. He wants to encourage copycats — people who will say, "If he can do it, I can, too."

Maybe not take a Vomit Comet ride under quite those circumstances. But hold onto the determination to realize one's dreams, and have fun at it, even while living with a serious physical (or other) affliction—yes. We should all copycat that.

1 comment:

Jayme Lynn Blaschke said...

I got to experience some parabolic microgravity maneuvers off Galveston in a four-seater plane back in the late 80s. The flight was arranged by June Scobee, the late astronaut Dick Scobee's wife. It was an incredible experience. I didn't get sick during the parabolas, but once the plane began the approach to the airport, I started sweating badly and felt very, very hot. As soon as we landed and stepped off the plane, I lost my lunch. I've always wondered about that sequence.