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Konstantin Tsiolkovsky Slept Here

Following in the footsteps of the man who invented space travel.

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IN A TREE-LINED PARK NOT FAR from Moscow’s Yaroslavl Highway sits a stone figure of a bearded man in a peasant-style turtleneck robe. Behind him, glittering in the sunshine, a 12-story-high steel arrow blasts a cigar-shaped rocket high into the sky over the city.

That’s how generations of Russians knew Konstantin Tsiolkovsky—a visionary thinker, standing at the very foundation of their country’s pioneering exploration of space. During my school days in Moscow in the 1980s, I, like most Soviet-era students, learned the story of the brilliant scientist from the Russian heartland who struggled to get recognition from the ignorant and indifferent officials of czarist Russia. It was only after the Socialist Revolution that Tsiolkovsky “experienced essentially a second creative birth,” as one Soviet history put it. Like much of the propaganda of that era, the statement wasn’t quite true. In fact, Tsiolkovsky’s claim to fame as the man who first proposed the use of rockets for space travel rests largely on work done before the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, and it took the Communists some time to appreciate his unorthodox ideas and not consider them a threat to their own revolutionary goals.

But by the dawn of the Space Age in the 1950s, Tsiolkovsky’s name would be recognized around the world, and he would be mentioned alongside Galileo, Kepler, and Copernicus as one of the intellectual giants who furthered humanity’s expansion beyond Earth. Nearly a century after he made his most daring prophecies and two decades after I first heard his name, I set out on a journey to find the other Tsiolkovsky—not the Soviet hero, but the solitary genius who laid out the principles of space travel when the practical means of achieving it still lay far in the future.

On a bright summer morning, with my college friend Sergei at the steering wheel, I left the noise and heat of Moscow and headed out into a countryside of dew-sprinkled meadows, emerald-colored pines, and gleaming white birch trees. We were heading south, toward the city of Ryazan. There, within Russia’s “Golden Ring” of historic towns and ancient cathedrals, was the village of Izhevskoe, where Tsiolkovsky was born. The place is all but unknown to most Russians today—I struggled to find directions or even an area code for the site, and it was only after crossing the low banks of the Oka River into Ryazan itself that a motorist showed us where to go.

Finally, a scenic country road brought us to the large village where, in June 1849, Polish immigrant Eduard Ignatievich Tsiolkovsky came to work as a forester. Izhevskoe is known for the orderly layout of its streets and its well-built houses, but the first thing the traveler sees is the 1970s-era Tsiolkovsky museum, which has a bronze bust of the scientist out front.

At the time Tsiolkovsky’s father settled here, the museum’s youthful curator told us, the village was booming; with a population of 7,000, it was the fourth largest settlement in the Ryazan province. She directed us to the house where on September 17, 1857, the fifth of 18 Tsiolkovsky children—Konstantin, or Kostya for short—was born. We found the place in miserable condition, the result of decades of failed Soviet economic policy and post-Soviet disarray. There was no sign of any kind identifying it as a historic building.

Tsiolkovsky’s family did not remain in the house for long. Soon after Kostya’s birth, his father had to leave his job in Izhevskoe, and in April 1858 the family settled in Ryazan, where it remained for 10 years. There an event took place that would change Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s life forever.

“Age of 10 or 11, at the beginning of winter, I rode a toboggan,” he wrote in his autobiography. “Caught a cold [actually scarlet fever]. 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.”

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.

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