When Professor Stephen Hawking, the world’s most renowned physicist and cosmologist decided to fly zero gravity, Erik Viirre, MD, PhD, from UC San Diego Medical Center was invited along to assure a safe ride.
“It was a thrilling trip,” said Viirre, who specializes in diseases of the inner ear as Adjunct Associate Professor of Surgery/Otolaryngology and Cognitive Science at the UC San Diego School of Medicine. “While every moment felt spontaneous, the medical care was planned down to every detail, every breath and every heart beat was monitored.”
Hawking’s recent flight aboard a Zero Gravity Corporation plane was widely covered by the media, as the astrophysicist, who is confined to a wheelchair with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), was able to float free in a zero-gravity environment. His condition, also known as “Lou Gehrig's disease,” is a progressive neurodegenerative disorder that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord, often causing paralysis in the entire body.
Viirre and his team developed a desirable health profile and motion sickness program for Zero Gravity Corporation, and Viirre was asked to provide medical oversight of the trip. By controlling what a person eats before the flight, maintaining a cool ventilated cabin, prescribing a tested combination of oral medications, and timing the orientation of the body throughout the flight, more than 98% of passengers experience no nausea, said Viirre.
“Though some refer to NASA’s plane as the ‘vomit comet,’ in truth, the vast majority of ‘Zero G’ passengers do not experience any motion sickness whatsoever,” said Viirre who serves as volunteer chief medical officer for Zero Gravity Corporation, the only US company to offer FAA-approved weightless flights for the general public. Weightlessness occurs when the plane enters 25-second plunges, called parabolas. “Every step is taken for passengers to experience an enjoyable flight,” he added.
On a test flight, Viirre and his team practiced cardiac life support drills while dropping two miles per minute. Using a stand-in patient, the team monitored the person’s vitals, and performed chest compressions to simulate an emergency situation.
When the flight day arrived, Viirre and 30 passengers enjoyed several periods of weightlessness during the two-hour flight over the Atlantic. When asked how the medical team knew Hawking was managing the flight, Viirre answered, “He was smiling and smiling. Instead of stopping at the one planned parabola, we did eight.”
Viirre, who also serves on the board of the San Diego Air and Space Museum, believes that the experience of weightlessness should be available to science teachers. He is currently involved in an initiative to help hundreds of school teachers access zero gravity flights at no cost. In fact, the Museum is working with Zero Gravity Corporation to present a teacher development program to San Diego educators, slated to take off later this year.