How does a flame burn without gravity ? We are familiar with the majestic glow of light standing as if a soldier on guard bolt upright, planted onto the ground. We Earth born people orient to this radiance from a single candle filling a space with its presence, by revealing our presence within the darkness. We are attracted to the flame’s shape, quivering in slight disturbances, shaking our emotions to how we see, how we sense things around us with only this single burst of energy from such a small flickering energy flow. Without gravity the candle has no reference, the shape warps into a tiny orb as if a dying sun shrinking on itself. The tiny gas glows without any specific direction. We are the very first generation from our planet to view a flame burning without gravity. Gravity orients all life in linking the distant past in evolution to our present moment. Gravity is the vector of signalling that orients all sensing within all mammalian cells. Gravity is the primal code to which all of Nature has shaped itself.
The longing to fly like a bird has entered into the consciousness of many people. To soar free from the bounds of gravity is an impulse that has drawn many ambitious adventurers to the glow of the flickering flame. All manners of contrivances have spectacularly failed over the millennia in attempting to accomplish this human dream of flight.
SpaceShip One was the first commercial craft to renter into space over a two-week period using the same spacecraft, winning the coveted X-Prize. SpaceShip One was invented by aeronautical genius Burt Rutan. “The Ansari X Prize was a $10 million purse for the first privately built vehicle that could safely haul a pilot and the equivalent weight of two passengers to the edge of space — then to repeat the feat within two weeks.”
The genius feature that Rutan designed was the capacity of the spacecraft to change the wing shape which is how the craft reenters into Earths gravity field. The wings pivot over the body of the spacecraft to make the object behave like a falling badminton shuttlecock with the weight of the fuselage hanging below the pivoted wings. Speeding under rocket boost at the speed of a bullet, SpaceShip One enters into a parabolic kiss into microgravity height then to reorient its shape falling back into Earth’s gravitational field of acceleration. The enormous risk to accomplish this manoeuvre is for the spacecraft to begin tumbling then spinning into a destructive descent that no pilot can recover from. Once SpaceShipOne is falling fast enough for atmospheric air pressure to support flying motion, the wings are pivoted into the flying configuration so that the pilot can safely land the spacecraft on a regular runway.
“With pilot Brian Binnie at the controls, SpaceShipOne on Oct 4, 2004 rocketed to a winning height of 367,442 feet (112 kilometers), setting a new altitude record for the craft and proving that private industry can build a viable vehicle for sending paying passengers into space.”
“SpaceShipOne technology is currently owned by a Paul Allen company, called Mojave Aerospace Ventures (MAV). Allen is a Microsoft co-founder and bankrolled the design and building of SpaceShipOne to the tune of more than $20 million.”
“The MAV team is led by research aircraft developer Burt Rutan, chief of Scaled Composites, based at the Mojave Spaceport, California.”
“During the previous week, SpaceShipOne, under the controls of pilot Mike Melvill, coasted above the 62-mile (100-kilometer) altitude point and successfully completed the first of the back-to-back X Prize flights.”
“That Sept. 29, 2004 flight — dubbed X1 — saw SpaceShipOne soar to a reported 337,500 feet. Melvill’s rocket ride was not without incident. The craft rolled nearly 30 times in an unplanned manner as it shot faster than a bullet out of Earth’s atmosphere.”
“Melvill was able to dampen out the roll, re-enter the atmosphere, and make a controlled glide and landing at the Mojave Spaceport. This flight was deemed by a team of judges as a successful first flight for the Ansari X Prize.”
Describing his exhilaration, Rutan reflected, “What you’ve seen here is a research and development program to look at new ideas on how manned spacecraft can really be significantly safer … and there will be new ideas out there.” Later, Rutan announced, they plan to build a new 5-person ‘rocket plane for British entrepreneur Richard Branson, who will market space tourism flights to the public under the name Virgin Galactic.
On the human scale of flying, Austrian skydiver, Felix Baumgartner also had a dream of flying alone when he performed his RedBull Stratos jump from the edge of space. Red Bull Stratos was a space diving project involving. Baumgartner. On 14 October 2012, Baumgartner flew approximately 39 kilometres (24 mi) into the startosphere over New Mexico, United States in a helium baloon before free falling in a pressure suit, then parachuting to Earth. The total jump, from leaving the capsule to landing on the ground, lasted approximately ten minutes. While the free fall was initially expected to last between five and six minutes, Baumgartner deployed his parachute after 4 minutes and 19 seconds.
Reaching 1,357.64 km/h (843.6 mph)—which is Mach 1.25—Baumgartner broke the sound barrier on his descent, thus becoming the first human to do so without any form of engine power. Preliminary measurements show Baumgartner also broke two other world records. With a final altitude of 38,969 m (127,851 ft), Baumgartner broke the unofficial record for the highest manned balloon flight of 37,640 m (123,491 ft) previously set by Nicolas Piantanida. He also claims to have broken the record for the highest altitude jump, set in 1960 by retired USAF Colonel Joseph Kittinger, who was Baumgartner’s mentor and capsule communicator at Red Bull Stratos mission control. These claims were verified by the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (FAI).
Baumgartner’s jump was 65 years to the day after October 14, 1947, when retired USAF General, Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier for the first time in a piloted aircraft.
But as Baumgartner stood poised before leaping into the invisible stream of gravity below him what were his thoughts? The other question that I wish to ask in this essay what does Baumgartner’s epic human flight teach us about gravity?
The Red Bull Stratos project became unglued when Felix Baumgartner reacted so violently with panic attacks according to a The New York Times account when he found himself completely unfocusing into a debilitating state of claustrophobia when the visor of his pressure suit was first closed during testing of the space suit. The free fall from such a hight is to reduce the risk of ebullism which is the above the altitude of Anderson’s Line, at 63, 000 feet (18,900m) at which body fluids boil at normal body temperature, 37 C (98.6) under such reduced surrounding air pressure.
“Symptoms of ebullism include bubbles in the membranes of the mouth and eyes, swelling of the skin, and bubbles in the blood. Blood circulation and breathing may be impaired or stopped. The brain tissue may be starved of oxygen because of blockage of arteries, and the lungs may swell to the point haemorrhaging. Death will result unless recompression is rapid enough to reduce the bubbles before tissue damage occurs.”
Dr. Michael Gervais was brought in by Red Bull to both evaluate Baumgartner’s claustrophobia and help him conquer his fear of being closed in. Gervais realised Baumgartner was totally committed to making the jump. The pressure suit was the problem for Baumgartner, closing the helmet inside the suit became the tipping point that Gervais attacked in the specific mind approach for Baumgartner. That pressure suit was the weak link where Baumgartner did not feel in control of his situation, succumbing to his emotions. Gervais realized the pressure suit was the focus of Baumgartner not his mission to jump in the pressure suit. Baumgartner’s focus was split between the pressure suit and the moment he was living in. Gervais gave Baumgartner the tools of coping within this enormous stress to see his journey into the free fall as his meaning toward becoming the first person to break the sound barrier flying only with their body. Gervais gave Baumgartner the tool of ‘ combat breathing,’ deep breathing techniques to calm himself. To accomplish this refocus Gervais also rewrote the words of the inner self-talk that Baumgartner used to listen to his mind’s word flow about how he described the jump to himself and to his support group surrounding him, to rebuild his self-esteem and self-confidence. Gervais sharpened these skills by pushing Baumgartner close employing very uncomfortable situations then to recapture Baumgartner’s ability to move toward the edge of panic yet to draw back before plunging into his panic attack. Gervais trained Baumgartner’s breathing to keep him within the moment, within the flow getting full control of his mind at the edge of engaging, to breathe free in that moment. What is ‘breathing free in the moment’, and where does it happen within our physiology?
Toward the beginning of an answer to that query I will cite from Vestibular Autonomic Regulation by Bill J. Yates and Alan D. Miller, CRC Press Inc., 1996- ISBN 0-8493-7668-8. According to these authors panic attacks, ”…include a high salience of autonomic symptoms, including heart palpitations, sweating , trembling, hot or cold flashes, gastrointestinal distress, shortness of breath, feeling like choking, chest discomfort, numbness or tingling sensations and dizziness or faintness. Some of these autonomic symptoms, including shortness of breath, chest discomfort, paresthesia and feeling dizzy or faint, are generally attributed to hyperventilation, a behaviour in which these patients (Baumgartner) are known to engage excessively. Accompanying the autonomic symptoms are cognitive symptoms of ‘feelings of unreality’ and fear of ‘going crazy’ or even death. Typically there is a strong urge to flee or escape from the situation in which the panic takes place. After one or more attacks, patients begin to worry about future episodes. This worry is a major component of the panic disorder.”
These authors also noticed that the prevalence of panic patients with vestibular or balance abnormalities was remarkably high (71-88%). Patients with panic disorders are frequently hyperventilating with an increase in tidal volume. Patients with panic disorders have been observed to reveal more subtle changes in overt respiratory behaviour such as breathing more irregularly or engaging in chest rather than abdominal breathing. Inhalation of carbon dioxide can elicit panic attacks in a greater proportion of panic patients than in normal or non-panic psychiatric controls. This increased sensitivity to carbon dioxide combined with hyperventilation may be caused by a hypersensitive autonomic control mechanism in the brainstem. D.F. Klein has proposed that a hypersensitive ‘suffocation alarm’ brainstem system represents the core abnormality in panic disorder. In patients suffering vestibular dysfunction, when their visual field is stimulated by a illusory motion movement greater increases in body sway are induced compared to normals, suggesting increased sensitivity to visual spatial stimuli. In other words the visual sense miscues by provoking the vestibular symptoms. Within the anatomy of the brain stem this projection of pathway highlights the linking of the locus coeruleus within its role controlling posture, to the lateral vestibular nucleus as the physiology of the optic flow stimulating body sway. Functionally cells in the locus coeruleus were found to respond to stimulation from both the labyrinth and to neck rotation. The lateral vestibular nucleus zones are of interest since this region receives terminals from the utricular nerve and anterior and posterior ampullary nerves but not the horizontal ampullary nerve. This suggests that these types of projections are responsive mainly to vertical canal and otolith inputs. The same kinds of rotation and acceleration gravity signals that Baumgartner had to deal with as he jumped into the microgravity stream accelerating to over 1.25 Mach as his body began to spin one way then another in violent vortex spins that could have ended in disaster. If you view his descent actual footage you will see the enormous torsion within these spins, that he managed to manipulate with micro motions of his hands while in supersonic free fall.
So as Felix Baumgartner stood on the edge of space his inner voice was calming him at his moment of moments. He was breathing in the combat fashion in full control of his visual flow as he saluted to fall into the gravity stream. Felix Baumgartner overcame his fear to control himself into flying faster than sound. His fear was controlled as a vestibular aberration recognized by a brilliant psychologist, Dr. Michael Gervais, who instinctively relied on controlling the panic hyperventilation into a better respiration pattern that controlled his flying focus. The Red Bull Stratos Project teaches of the fragility of the human situation how vulnerable we are at our core. But the fall into the gravity vector teaches us that gravity itself is the vector of orientation that determines our own sense of orientation within gravity. We are paced entirely by our vestibular system in response to the gravity field we live in.