Konstantin Tsiolkovsky Slept Here
Following in the footsteps of the man who invented space travel.
- By Anatoly Zak
- Air & Space magazine, September 2002
(Page 3 of 6)
The couple rented several houses during their 12 years in Borovsk, one of which became a museum when the 140th anniversary of the scientist’s birth was celebrated in 1997. Inconspicuous among the town’s dachas and overgrown gardens, the house fronts a street that was uneven and unpaved. According to the museum curator, little has changed in this neighborhood since the days when Tsiolkovsky walked to his school or took his pupils to a nearby meadow to launch hot-air balloons.
While in Borovsk, Tsiolkovsky experimented with physical processes, particularly the properties of gases, which gave him ideas for a theoretical work titled Svobodnoe Prostranstvo, or “Free Space.” Completed in 1883, it wasn’t published until 1956, long after his death. In it Tsiolkovsky made the first attempt in his decades-long effort to describe the meaning of the cosmos for humanity and the effects that vacuum and weightlessness would have on future space travelers.
The manuscript also contained a sketch considered to be one of Tsiolkovsky’s earliest depictions of a spacecraft. A simple drawing shows what looks like spacesuited travelers in weightlessness, a cannon-like machine to propel the craft through the vacuum, and primitive gyroscopes to control the orientation of the ship in space. Also in Borovsk, Tsiolkovsky started drafting designs for airships, which, along with rocketry, would remain a passion for the rest of his life.
In February 1892 he was promoted to another teaching position, in the provincial capital of Kaluga, which must have seemed a metropolis compared to Borovsk. Today, road signs on the way there read like flashbacks from Russian history. Heading southwest from Moscow, you pass the village of Tarutino, site of a key victory over Napoleon’s army in 1812. Next comes Obninsk, the Russian Los Alamos, where Soviet nuclear technology was born. Finally, the road reaches the town of Kaluga, which for Russians is almost inseparable from the name “Tsiolkovsky.” As we crossed the Oka River and headed into town, we saw the silhouette of a tall rocket rising above the distant hills—a full-size replica of the Vostok booster that lifted Yuri Gagarin into orbit in 1961. It’s part of a complex dedicated to the father of Russian spaceflight.
Tsiolkovsky would remain in Kaluga until his death in 1935, and it was there that he created the monumental body of work that secured his place as a prophet of the Space Age. He started with a work of science fiction. In 1895, he published Grezy o Zemle i Nebe (Dreams of the Earth and Sky), which describes mankind’s settlement of space, complete with characters who mine asteroids and build orbital greenhouses.
In 1903, he published a manuscript titled “The Exploration of the World Space with Jet Propulsion Instruments” in Nauchnoe Obozrenie (Scientific Review) magazine. Today this work is universally recognized as the world’s first scientifically sound proposal to use rockets for exploring space. For decades afterward the work would stun readers with the completeness and level of detail with which Tsiolkovsky designed his spaceship. The mathematical relation he formulated between the changing mass of a rocket as it burns fuel, the velocity of exhaust gases, and the rocket’s final speed has since become known as Tsiolkovsky’s formula, and is considered one of the foundations of the science of astronautics.
Amazingly, more than two decades before Robert Goddard launched the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket, Tsiolkovsky fueled his theoretical engine with a mix of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, the same combination used today on the space shuttle, and still considered the most efficient of chemical rocket propellants. Tsiolkovsky arrived at the combination with little hope of testing his theory. He never attempted to build a rocket engine, let alone a spaceship. His discoveries stemmed from a thorough grounding in physics and mathematics, an awareness of the latest achievements in technology (for example, James Dewar first liquefied hydrogen in 1898), and a gift for prediction.
For all its prescient brilliance, Tsiolkovsky’s manuscript made it to print in Nauchnoe Obozrenie at a bad time, just after its publisher had died and the magazine was about to fold. “Only a few copies of the magazine were distributed before the press run was confiscated,” says Galina Sergeeva, deputy director for scientific research at the State Museum of the History of Cosmonautics, located near Tsiolkovsky’s house in Kaluga. “Until the 1960s it was believed that this work had never made it outside Russia, when, with the help of American researchers, a copy of Nauchnoe Obozrenie containing Tsiolkovsky’s article was discovered in the Library of Congress.”