Konstantin Tsiolkovsky Slept Here
Following in the footsteps of the man who invented space travel.
- By Anatoly Zak
- Air & Space magazine, September 2002
(Page 4 of 6)
Publication dates for the scientist’s early works became an issue years later when he and his followers, both in the U.S.S.R. and abroad, struggled to establish his priority in postulating key astronautical concepts. In the 1920s, Tsiolkovsky learned about the work of German space pioneer Hermann Oberth, who, working with no knowledge of Tsiolkovsky’s writing, published his key proposals for rocket-powered spaceflight in 1923. Tsiolkovsky wrote to Oberth, asserting his rights as the first to conceive of rocket flight.
“Tsiolkovsky deeply cared about his priority in the field,” says his granddaughter Elena Timoshenkova, director of the museum that has been made out of the Kaluga house. During this period, “He often published his work himself and would send it to leading scientists. However, there was almost no response.”
“He understood precisely that he was a genius, one of those people who move humanity forward,” Sergeeva adds. Ironically, it was Oberth who later helped make Tsiolkovsky’s name widely known in the West by publicizing his insights.
In 1926, Tsiolkovsky published Plan for Space Exploration, a bold 16-step program whereby human civilization could outlive its dying sun and settle the universe. The scheme called for rocket-powered airplanes, the use of plants for life support, and solar radiation to grow food and supply energy. He predicted the need for spacefarers to use pressurized suits when leaving the spacecraft, and envisioned the construction of large orbital settlements. According to Tsiolkovsky, humans would colonize the asteroid belt, the solar system, and ultimately the galaxy.
That work was followed three years later by Kosmicheskie Raketnye Poezda (The Space Rocket Trains), which advanced Tsiolkovsky’s earlier thoughts about multi-stage rockets. His calculations proved that building a rocket with separate stages, each of which would be jettisoned as it finished consuming its propellants, would allow a payload to be accelerated indefinitely through the vacuum.
Tsiolkovsky’s publications are full of ideas that would later become common practice in aerospace engineering. He proposed using graphite rudders to steer a rocket in flight, cryogenic propellants to cool combustion chambers and nozzles, and pumps to drive propellant from storage tanks into the combustion chamber. He considered human factors as well—at the dawn of the Space Age, the first cosmonauts were amazed by Tsiolkovsky’s accurate descriptions of weightlessness.
Yet few people at the time recognized the significance of his writings. For all his neighbors in Kaluga knew, he was just a slightly eccentric schoolteacher. According to Galina Sergeeva, the townspeople “sometimes saw this almost deaf old man walking along the street, mumbling something incomprehensible to himself.” In 1899 Tsiolkovsky started teaching physics and math at Kaluga’s Religious School for Girls, and many of his pupils would later recount fond memories of him. “He was able to explain difficult things in really simple terms,” says Sergeeva, citing the former students.
Modern pilgrims to the Tsiolkovsky house—a two-story wooden cottage the family bought in 1904—are taken through a gate into a small garden squeezed between the house and the property next door. Inside, the cottage is modest, almost ascetic: white walls, simple wooden furniture. The most luxurious touch on the first floor is a large chimney covered with glossy tiles decorated with traditional Russian motifs. In the dining room, which doubled as a living room, Elena Timoshenkova directs my attention to a coffee mug with the inscription “Poverty teaches and happiness spoils.” Her grandfather “was quite conservative in things,” she explains, “and his family lived strictly under his rules.”