Monday, April 8, 2013

Confusing the Adventure of Science with Adventure

The world has always loved balloonists but the French have loved them most.

Hand-in-hand in Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris are two balloonists who tried to fly higher than anyone had before. The monument to Joseph Croce-Spinelli and Théodore Sivel shows the two draped beneath a shroud, their fingers intertwined and an inscription on the side declaring them to have perished in a balloon called the Zenith on April 15, 1875, at around 28,000 feet.

In the 1870s, ballooning had progressed to a point where higher and higher altitudes were being sought for greater understandings of the atmosphere and its weather. Brave men were learning of the challenges and dangers of higher flight by simply experiencing them, discovering the impacts of thin air that made on consciousness. This was done as it was later in diving and mountain climbing, trial and error. Oxygen seemed to take away the effects of thin air on consciousness so, equipped with several breathing bags of the air, Croce-Spinelli, Sivel, and a third balloonist, Gaston Tissandier, ascended into the air that April 15 prepared to break the existing record, 36,000 feet in 1862 by James Glaisher, for altitude.

They reached the "death zone," at about 26,000 feet, when they began to go in and out of consciousness. Unable to reach for the oxygen tubes above their heads, they were seized by the thrill of going up even further into this perilous altitude. As Tissandier, the only survivor, later recalled: "One becomes indifferent, one thinks neither of the perilous situation nor of any danger; one rises and is happy to rise." Croce-Spinelli, revived by a gulp of oxygen, decided to throw out equipment and the balloon rose to 28,000 feet, according to a recording by their barometer. When Tissandier came to, he found his companions dead and the Zenith rapidly plummeting to the earth.

The Zenith crash landed in Ciron, France, and Sivel and Croce-Spinelli were found with their faces blackened and their mouths filled with blood. They were widely celebrated as heroes who gave their lives for progressing aviation. A May 2, 1875 New York Times article declared them as "martyrs to science." A monument was erected in Ciron where the Zenith had fallen and the elaborate grave sculpted by Alphonse Dumilatre was installed in Père Lachaise Cemetery as a memorial to the two French balloonists. Gaston Tissandier is also buried in the Paris cemetery, although he lived until 1899.


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