Despite having been told he would not make it past his 25th birthday, now 75-year-old renowned cosmologist and science author Stephen Hawking is being sent to space on billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic ship. While confined to a wheelchair and communicating via a speech generator attached to a single cheek muscle, Stephen Hawking continues to contribute to the advancement of science in incredible ways. Over the course of his career, Hawking has also been a fierce advocate of disability rights and has shattered the glass ceiling of what people with disabilities are perceived to be capable of time and time again.
While the physical and intellectual capabilities of human beings differ greatly, they do not necessarily define us nor do they render us incapable of accomplishing significant feats. Stephen Hawking has visited one of Earth’s last thresholds, Antarctica, and has experienced weightlessness on a sub-orbital space flight. He is the Director of Research at the Centre for Theoretical Cosmology at the University of Cambridge and has written several novels, of which A Brief History of Time was a record-breaking best-seller. The physicist famously theorized that black holes emit radiation and is a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the greatest award for civilians available in the United States. These are just a few of his accomplishments.
Hawking’s incredible career signifies the extent to which the empowerment of people with disabilities through increased accessibility and technological advancement can provide greater opportunities for everyone to pursue their dreams regardless of their circumstances. At age 21, Hawking was diagnosed with a rare early-onset form of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) that has slowly paralyzed him. While this disease is generally fatal within five years, Hawking has lived more than five decades since his initial diagnosis. While not everyone diagnosed with ALS may have access to the same treatment and care as this academic celebrity, the longevity and success of Hawking’s career demonstrates that investing in people with disabilities is a worthy pursuit.
While Stephen Hawking’s physical capabilities have continued to decline over the decades, his mind and intellect have remained intact. By providing Hawking with a vehicle to communicate his brilliance, the pursuit of science has benefited as a whole. People with disabilities are often erased in both science and science fiction. Becoming a spacefaring species was one of the greatest defining moments for human beings. Now, we look to colonizing other terrestrial bodies in the event that one day our own planet can no longer harbour life.
In a visit to London’ Space Museum in 2015, Stephen Hawking stated that space travel “represents an important life insurance for our future survival, as it could prevent the disappearance of humanity by colonizing other planets.” One of the cosmologist’s biggest dreams has been to travel to space himself which will, in the near future, become a reality. As an icon for disability rights activism, Hawking’s journey will allow people with disabilities to see themselves represented in the voyage to the stars.
In science fiction, writers imagine future worlds in which anything is possible. In these imaginings of tomorrow, be they utopian, dystopian or complex, nuanced worlds with problems like our own, disability is often perceived as something to be cured, fixed or erased altogether. In pathologizing disability or removing it entirely from futurist contexts, people with disabilities often do not find themselves represented or as fitting into the grand scheme. As a result, Stephen Hawking’s projected spaceflight matters immensely as it exemplifies that he, like anyone else, is an individual with his own physical and intellectual capacities, of which having a disability is not his sole-defining characteristic.
It is evident that Hawking’s career has been greatly empowered due to his intelligence and access to economic capital which others with his disease may not be as fortunate to have. However, he is a shining example of the potential that can be realized when society works to develop technology and increase accessibility for everyone. Today, accessibility can take on the form of ensuring all stations on public transit lines have elevators or that all new buildings use levers instead of door knobs. The shift towards accessibility in urban planning and the design of all things means that people with disabilities have a bright future ahead.
The rise of space tourism by private companies like Virgin Galactic and SpaceX are disrupting the entire space exploration industry. The CEO of SpaceX, founder of PayPal and Tesla Motors’ Elon Musk has launched private vehicles into space and enabled them to return to Earth with reusable rockets. In doing so, Musk has greatly reduced the cost of spaceflight and in turn made it more accessible. As these companies continue to develop space technology, the goal of taking humans to other planets becomes more realistic. Not only this but also sending human beings to space from all walks of life including those, like Stephen Hawking, with disabilities.
Stephen Hawking being sent so space matters for every dreamer who has imagined themselves leaving Earth to gaze down in wonder upon the curvature of the pale blue dot. It has traditionally only been astronauts with unparalleled physical and intellectual ability who have had the enormous privilege of leaving our planet’s atmosphere. Now, the extremely wealthy can purchase a ticket to the stars via private space travel companies. However, as evidenced by this change and while it may take centuries, it is only a matter of time before space travel becomes available to everyone.