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.”
From the hallway, a steep stairway goes up to Tsiolkovsky’s workroom and lab. According to Timoshenkova, Russian cosmonauts, who made frequent visits to the house, nicknamed the steps the “space stairway.” At the top of the stairs is a trap door. “His children knew,” Timoshenkova says, “when this door was closed, nobody could go upstairs to bother him. He was very strict with his children, but became much softer with the grandchildren.”
Tsiolkovsky’s office has a writing desk and another desk on which are displayed various gadgets of the time, including a camera with an old-fashioned accordion-like case. A telescope rests on a wooden tripod by the desk. One of the windows faces a terrace that served as the scientist’s lab, which for Russians is probably the most recognizable part of the Kaluga house. A long joiner’s bench runs along the main wall, and a model of a metal airship is suspended from the ceiling. In a corner is the scientist’s bicycle, which Timoshenkova believes was one of the first in Kaluga. In the 1930s, Tsiolkovsky was often seen riding his bike in the city’s main park, which remained one of his favorite places in the last years of his life.
Today, in the middle of that park, a stone monument marks Tsiolkovsky’s grave, with the engraving “Here lies the great Russian scientist Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky 17 IX [September 17] 1857—19 IX [September 19] 1935.” Shortly before his death, he wrote: “All my life I have dreamed that by my work mankind would at least be advanced a little.”
Whether this wish came true is a matter of some debate. When mankind did in fact reach outer space, it was a Russian, Yuri Gagarin, who went first. But was it Tsiolkovsky’s ideas that got him there? The answer is a qualified yes. Despite the fact that his theories remained largely unknown in the West for decades, his influence on the first generation of Russian space engineers is unquestionable. In the fall of 1923, he received a letter from 15-year-old Valentin Glushko, asking for copies of the scientist’s writings. There followed several years of correspondence between Tsiolkovsky and Glushko, who would grow up to be the father of Soviet rocket propulsion. “The study of Tsiolkovsky’s works made me understand that the central issue in developing a means of reaching outer space is finding the optimal source of chemical energy and controlling it within the rocket engine,” Glushko wrote years later. While Tsiolkovsky’s work was theoretical, the younger man succeeded in practice, overseeing the development of numerous rocket engines, launch vehicles, and spacecraft beginning in the early 1930s at the famous Gas Dynamics Laboratory in Leningrad.
It is less clear how Tsiolkovsky’s writing influenced Sergei Korolev, the other seminal figure in Russian rocketry and the engineer who eventually supervised construction of Gagarin’s launch vehicle. Korolev had started out in aviation and only turned to rocket technology in the 1930s. Soviet-era authors, apparently with Korolev’s help, introduced a legend about young Korolev making a pilgrimage to Kaluga to meet Tsiolkovsky. Modern researchers have challenged the validity of this story, but nonetheless credit Tsiolkovsky’s work with helping to form Korolev’s views on space travel. In his 1934 book Rocket Flight in the Stratosphere, Korolev wrote, “He [Tsiolkovsky] founded the theory of rocket flight…and explored numerous issues related to manned flight at high altitude in outer space.” According to Korolev’s biographer Yaroslav Golovanov, the copies of Tsiolkovsky’s books found in Korolev’s personal library are covered in pencil notations.
The schoolteacher from Kaluga did in fact live to watch the early progress in rocketry made by Glushko, Korolev, and their colleagues in the 1930s. He consequently revised his estimates of how soon humanity would enter space. In a newspaper article published in July 1935, just a few months before his death, he wrote: “Unending work in recent times has shaken my pessimistic views: Techniques have been found that will give remarkable results within a few decades.”
Tsiolkovsky died famous and respected in his native land. In the years following the Bolshevik Revolution, he enjoyed the recognition and financial support of authorities anxious to tout the superiority of the Soviet system. His scientific works were widely published and popularized, the new government granted him a pension, and he and his family were given a new house in Kaluga, where their descendants live today.
Still, documents made public in recent years reveal that Tsiolkovsky’s path through the political and social cataclysms of revolutionary Russia was not as trouble-free as the official Soviet histories portrayed it. “Like any other person who was brought up in a totally different world, he had a problem understanding what was happening,” Galina Sergeeva says. “On one hand, the goals which the Revolution declared—the happiness and well-being of the people, the reconstruction of the world for the better—he obviously supported. But on the other hand, he suffered almost immediately [after the Revolution]: ChK [the Bolsheviks’ notorious secret police] arrested him, brought him to Moscow, and threw him in prison.” According to Sergeeva, Tsiolkovsky was accused of anti-Soviet writing and was jailed in the infamous Lubyanka prison for several weeks before a high-ranking official had him released. (In a clear sign that times have changed, it was the local branch of the Russian security service that recently transferred historical documents related to the scientist’s arrest to the State Museum of the History of Cosmonautics in Kaluga.)