Konstantin Tsiolkovsky Slept Here
Following in the footsteps of the man who invented space travel.
- By Anatoly Zak
- Air & Space magazine, September 2002
(Page 2 of 6)
The nearly complete loss of hearing left bright and active Kostya impaired for the rest of his life. At the same time, biographers agree, the disability made him turn to books and stimulated his lifelong drive for learning.
In 1868, the Tsiolkovsky family moved to Vyatka, some 500 miles northeast of Ryazan, where Kostya entered the town’s school for boys. Public education was a struggle, however, and he eventually was suspended. From then on, Tsiolkovsky was entirely self-educated. “Besides books I had no other teachers,” he later wrote.
His father sent him to study in Moscow, where he taught himself at Chertkovskaya Library, which held the country’s finest collection of books. His family could send only a few kopecks to support him. “I ate just black bread, didn’t have even potatoes and tea,” he later remembered. “Instead I was buying books, pipes, sulfuric acid [for experiments], and so on. I was happy with my ideas, and black bread didn’t upset me at all.”
Tsiolkovsky’s arrival in Moscow coincided with profound economic and social changes in Russian society. With the abolition of feudal dependency in 1861, masses of freed peasants started moving into the city, providing the workforce for a newly industrializing Russia. The arts and sciences flourished in this changing world. It was the age of Tchaikovsky and Tolstoy. Dimitri Mendeleev developed the first periodic table of elements, and Nikolai Zhukovsky did his pioneering work on aerodynamics. In Moscow, Tsiolkovsky met Nikolai Fedorov, an eccentric Russian philosopher whose theory of “cosmism” had a profound effect on young Kostya. Fedorov prophesied that progress in science would eventually allow humans to achieve immortality and even resurrect long-dead ancestors. The population would swell so much that humanity would have to spread across the universe.
According to his biographers, these were the ideas that awakened Tsiolkovsky’s interest in reaching outer space. Around this time, he also discovered the novels of French science fiction and adventure writer Jules Verne, such as From the Earth to the Moon (1865), which inspired a whole generation of spaceflight pioneers. Unlike most of his contemporaries, however, Tsiolkovsky did more than simply marvel at Verne’s descriptions of fantastic journeys. He questioned their practicality. He understood that shooting spacecraft from a giant cannon, Verne’s method of reaching the moon, would inevitably kill its passengers due to the force of acceleration. Were there other, gentler ways of accomplishing the same thing?
In September 1879, upon his return to Ryazan, Tsiolkovsky’s years of self-directed study paid off when he passed the exam to get a teacher’s certificate. Around that time he began drafting his first scientific works, and even built a small centrifuge to simulate different levels of gravity and test their effects on chickens.
In January 1880, the Ministry of Education assigned 22-year-old Konstantin to teach arithmetic and geometry in the town of Borovsk. In comparison to Ryazan it was a backwater, located about 70 miles south of Moscow. Borovsk had a reputation as a town of farmers and traders, whose drunken fistfights and belief in witchcraft made them the laughingstock of the neighboring towns. It was here that Tsiolkovsky settled and raised a family.
To get to modern-day Borovsk, we had to leave the highway and drive along country roads, stopping for directions several times. As we approached our destination, the flat, densely populated Moscow suburbs gave way to wooded hills and valleys, with little signs of habitation. The first signs of Borovsk were the two onion-shaped domes of an orthodox church poking above the trees—the same church, I learned, where Tsiolkovsky married Varvara Sokolova, the daughter of a local preacher, in August 1880.