URBANA — Physicist Stephen Hawking is perhaps the most widely recognized scientist in the world, a best-selling author and a leading authority on the cosmos.
Now he has his own action figure. Preparing to boldly go where few action figures have gone: space.
The edge of space, technically, in a balloon that reaches an altitude of 100,000 feet.
It's the brainchild of Spencer Gore and other engineering students at the University of Illinois who are part of Space for All, a nonprofit Gore founded with his roommate several years ago to launch experiments with high-altitude balloons.
Some of their projects are true fact-finding missions — for example, a recent effort to measure air contaminants above oil fields in South Dakota, using satellite imagery. Or plans to study the mechanics of climate change from near space.
Some are ... not. Hence last year's "Picard & Kirk to Space" project. The team launched two trios of Star Trek action figures — riding models of the Enterprise — to drum up more student interest in ballooning and space travel.
And because mini Kirk and Picard had never actually made it to space, according to mission director Logan Kugler, who has personally viewed 500 Star Trek episodes. (See the Discovery Channel video on the project: spaceforall.org/node/12).
Another project, a collaboration with elementary school students, launched color-changing nail polish and marshmallow Peeps. "The look on the kids' faces when they saw that video..." Gore said.
"These balloons get up 20 to 30 miles. It's not technically space, but it's really, really close," he said. "The skies are still black, and the atmosphere is extremely thin. It's almost as good as you can get with space exploration without spending millions of dollars."
Speaking of money, the group has launched a crowd-funding effort to pay for the Hawking expedition, at hawking.spaceforall.org. So far they've raised $236 toward a goal of $950.
How did this idea come up?
Hawking is pretty much the group's idol, the rock star of the physics world.
At 72, he's still making headlines, challenging long-held notions about black holes. And according to his bio, Hawking still hopes to make it into space someday.
"He's done a great deal to popularize science over the last 30 years. He's not only taught us about the universe in general, but he's inspired a lot of people," Gore said. "He's really helped shape modern science. We just thought he was the right guy to fly on this mission."
Rather, his action figure is. The team paid a specialty doll sculptor to make the custom 10-inch action figure. (Don't call it a doll.)
While Hawking has suffered from ALS, a motor neuron disease, since age 21, his action figure will not include a wheelchair, at the request of his daughter, author Lucy Hawking. Besides, Gore said, he wouldn't need one in space. What does Hawking think of this enterprise? His daughter passed along the students' plans and "he thought it was kind of funny," Gore said. "She thought it was a great idea."
The doll will be attached to a helium-filled latex balloon, which expands as it rises into thinner air. Eventually the balloon will pop, and the mini Hawking will free-fall for the first 50,000 feet or so until it slams into the thicker atmosphere, where the parachute will take over, Gore said.
Two cameras will film the entire flight. Launched from a spot on south campus, the balloon is expected to travel more than 100 miles, possibly into Ohio. (Those jet-streams can be "stupidly fast.") Mission control will follow the flight path via two transmitters, one satellite and one radar.
"We never know if we're going to get it back or not," Gore said. They've never lost one, but "we've had a lot of near-death experiences."
The launch is scheduled for 1 p.m. Sunday, but poor weather could force a postponement.