Konstantin Tsiolkovsky – Rocket Man

The Russian recluse, a scientific self-starter who left school at 14, developed pioneering theories of space travel that anticipated the great feats of the Space Race fifty years later.
Tsiolkovsky sitting in his workshop in Kaluga, Russia. Credit: Sovfoto/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.
Tsiolkovsky sitting in his workshop in Kaluga, Russia. Credit: Sovfoto/Universal Images Group via Getty Images.
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In May 1903, six months before the first powered aircraft had flown, an unknown, self-taught, Russian scientist published a paper containing the first theoretical proof for the possibility of spaceflight. In December 1903 Orville Wright took off and the Wright brothers flew into history. That Russian scientist, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, remains virtually unknown outside of his homeland.

Tsiolkovsky’s early writings included detailed explanations about how airlocks could work to deal with the vacuum of outer space, pressurized suits to enable spacewalks outside of a craft, and the designs for space stations powered by solar energy. All this from a man who became deaf aged 10, left school at 14, and learned his science from reading books in a public library.

Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky was born September 17, 1857, in Izhevskoye, Russia. He was the fifth of 18 children. His father, Eduard, was a Roman Catholic who had emigrated from Poland and married Konstantin’s mother, Mariya, an Orthodox Christian of Tartar and Russian heritage. It was a relatively ordinary family. Mariya looked after the children and Eduard was successively a forester, a teacher, and then a minor government official in and around the town of Ryazan.

Tsiolkovsky was ten when he suffered a life changing illness which propelled him into a lifetime of study. It’s impossible to know if he would have followed a similar path had he not caught scarlet fever, but it’s clear it shaped his personality and methods of learning and thinking. In later life he wrote of the event: ‘Age of 10 or 11, at the beginning of winter, I rode a toboggan… Caught a cold, fell ill, was delirious. They thought I’d die, but I got better, but became very deaf and deafness wouldn’t go. It tormented me very much.’

His teenage years were especially difficult. His mother died when he was 13, and his disability meant education became an immense struggle. At 14 he was withdrawn from school and seems to have withdrawn himself from much of life outside of the home, spending his time immersed in books, especially those on maths and physics, which in turn sparked his imagination about the possibility of space travel. ‘Besides books I had no other teachers,’ he wrote. 

At the age of sixteen, his father sent him to Moscow where he was expected to enter a technical school but for unknown reasons failed to enroll. However, he continued his self-education at the city’s only free public library, the Chertkovskaya, home to Russia’s finest collection of books including numerous volumes on physics, chemistry, astronomy and analytical mechanics. The meagre allowance his father could afford to send to the capital didn’t cover the needs of this inquisitive and expanding mind. Tsiolkovsky reminisced: ‘I just ate black bread, didn’t have even potatoes and tea. Instead I was buying books… I was happy with my ideas, and black bread didn’t upset me at all.’

Those ideas included ‘cosmism’, a philosophical theory that the cosmos was not created by God, but is a self-existent whole in which eventually science will allow humans to transcend death as they spread out across the universe. Humans would have to be become totally self-sufficient via mechanical transplants, and via the creation of self-sustaining bases from which to explore the planets. Both ideas have advanced since then. 

This was the work of eccentric Russian philosopher Nikolai Fedorov who Tsiolkovsky was introduced to during his Moscow years. Fedorov had a profound effect on the young man and heightened his obsession with reaching outer space. At the same time he discovered the novels of the science fiction writer Jules Verne and, as with so many pioneers of space travel, was inspired by his ideas. He even worked on some of Verne’s fantastical imaginations to establish their practical feasibility. He soon discovered that the notion of shooting a spacecraft out of a giant cannon, popularised in Verne’s ‘From the Earth to the Moon’ (1865), would quickly kill its crew because of the force of the acceleration.

After three years of solitary study in Moscow Tsiolkovsky returned to his family, with whom he moved to the town of Ryazan. Before passing the national exam to obtain a Teacher’s Certificate he found time to build a centrifuge in order to test gravitational effects and corralled local chickens as the test subjects. Aged 22 he took up a position teaching maths and geometry at a school in Borovsk 70 miles from Moscow. Ryazan was a backwater, but Borovsk was the back of beyond. It had a reputation as a town of roughnecks given to drunken fights in the street and a belief in witchcraft. Here, the self-taught intellectual married the daughter of local preacher and with Varvara Sokolova, raised a family.

This unlikely location was where he began to experiment with gases and ponder the effects of weightlessness on future space voyagers. His early writings included visionary ideas: sketches of gyroscopes to control a spaceship’s orientation, airlocks to allow spaceships to dock with each other, and pressurized space suits so that cosmonauts could venture outside of their crafts.

In 1892, now in his mid-thirties, Tsiolkovsky was promoted to another teaching position in the relative metropolis of Kaluga. It was still a provincial town, some 100 miles from Moscow, but it seems that one of the greatest minds Russia has produced felt no need to involve himself with what was then Russia’s second city, housing one of its greatest seats of learning – the Imperial University of Moscow. St Petersburg was the capital and hosted the country’s Academy of Science, but neither city was considered at the cutting edge of science and technology. 

He stayed in Kaluga until his death more than 40 years later. 

These were the golden years. He produced a stunning body of work including the 1903 paper which later propelled him to fame, at least in his own country. Exploration of the World Space with Reaction Machines contained the first scientific theoretical proof that a rocket could push through the atmosphere and orbit earth. Tsiolkovsky had worked out that the horizontal speed required to get into orbit is 8,000m/s, or 5 miles per second, and that this could be achieved using rockets fuelled by a mixture of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen. It all came true, and the formula is known in the space industry as ‘The Tsiolkovsky equation’ – it is the foundation of space travel. 

And yet, at first, there was little recognition of this insight either in Russia or abroad. It took a second paper, Exploration of Outer Space by Means of Rocket Devices, published in 1911 and determining the ‘escape velocity’ to break out into the solar system, to get the attention of his fellow scientists.  However, even after this, Tsiolkovsky would send his findings out of Russia, to better known scientists, and almost invariably receive no response. He was not considered a ‘name’ in his field, nor was he a distinguished professor from a big city university. 

There was so much more. In 1894 he’d designed a monoplane (it flew in 1915), he built the first Russian wind tunnel (by hand), in 1921 he developed the idea of a hovercraft, he theorized about an orbital lift, and his deafness did not prevent him from publishing a paper on The Origin of Music and Its Essence. His 1926 work 16 Stages of Space Exploration even had a chapter titled ‘Developing the ability to land on the ocean surface by rocket,’ an idea Elon Musk took forward almost a century on.

To his neighbours in Kaluga he was an eccentric recluse, given to strange experiments at home and walking the streets mumbling to himself. Although the Soviet state eventually embraced his work, his quasi-theological musings were at odds with Communist philosophy. In Is There God? he argued: ‘We are at the will of and controlled by Cosmos… we are marionettes, mechanical puppets.’ At one point the secret police arrested him and he spent several weeks in the notorious Lubyanka jail in Moscow accused of anti-Soviet propaganda. His pro-eugenics views, also rooted in Cosmism, also drew criticism. 

However, as the fledgling space industry got off the ground, the Soviets realised the propaganda benefits of claiming a pioneer as one of their own. Within the rocket science world he became a recognised name. There has been some sniping at his level of academic rigour but there is no disputing that he was the first to work out the equation which bears his name, nor that he influenced the better-known scientists who followed in his wake such as Werner Von Braun of Apollo fame, and the Soviet scientist Sergey Korolev who led the Russian Sputnik team. In the 1950s, years after his death, Tsiolkovsky was considered one of the great ‘fathers of rocketry’. Although, there is an argument that he is ‘the’ father of the science. 

Tsiolkovsky died in Kaluga on September 19th 1935 just a few months after predicting that ‘unending work in recent times has shaken my pessimistic views: Techniques have been found that will give remarkable results within a few decades.’

The prophet is not without honour, especially in the land of his birth. His modest log cabin house is open to the public; nearby stands the ‘State Museum of the History of Cosmonautics’ which bears his name; and down the road in Kaluga city park is his grave inscribed with the words: ‘Here lies the great Russian scientist Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky’. On the far side of the moon, a huge crater discovered by the Soviet spaceship LUNA 3 is named after him.

Knowledgeable science fiction experts know all this. In the comic book series ‘Assassin’s Creed’ a lead character reads from Tsiolkovsky’s The Will of the Universe. An episode of Star Trek is named after him. He is quoted in two of Sid Meier’s video games, and he has been name checked in a short story by the sci-fi writer William Gibson. Meier and Gibson will undoubtably know Tsiolkovsky’s best known quote – ‘The Earth is the cradle of mankind, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever.’ They honour a man who knew that science fiction can become science fact.

It is natural for the great adventurers such as Yuri Gagarin and Neil Armstrong to make the headlines, but greater awareness of the brilliant minds which propelled them to such heights would be a fitting honour of genius and an inspiration to future scientists. Victors write the history: the Americans ‘won’ the Space Race and their astronauts and scientists are better known around the world. But those astronauts and scientists know the name of the young self-taught Russian man who saw their future and helped it to become reality.

Shortly before his death, he wrote: ‘All my life I have dreamed that by my work mankind would at least be advanced a little.’ It was.

Tim Marshall

Tim Marshall is a journalist, broadcaster, and author. Amongst other titles, he is the author of the bestseller Prisoners of Geography (2015).

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