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.
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.
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.”
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.”
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.)
Even after the Soviet government embraced Tsiolkovsky as a hero, it avoided promoting his philosophical views. Although Tsiolkovsky often criticized traditional religions for their “primitive” explanation of the world, he himself saw the universe in almost theological terms, as a higher being that controls life on Earth and beyond. “We are at the will of and controlled by Cosmos,” he wrote in a work titled “Is There God?” “There is no absolute will—we are marionettes, mechanical puppets, machines, movie characters.” Obviously, these were not ideas that fit well with official Marxist ideology.
With the end of the Soviet state, a full and honest discussion of Tsiolkovsky’s legacy, good and bad, began at last. “Tsiolkovsky obviously had some wrong ideas, which were typical for his time—for example, the notion that nature has to be changed for human needs,” Sergeeva says. Post-Soviet publication of his work also has brought to light his controversial views on eugenics—specifically, his advocacy of the creation of a “better” human race. Despite his remarkable gifts for prediction, Tsiolkovsky obviously did not foresee that just a few years after his death, Nazi Germany would use eugenics to justify the murder of millions. “Eugenics was not a big part of Tsiolkovsky’s philosophy; however he did have similar views,” Sergeeva says.
Today, less then a mile from the scientist’s home in Kaluga, is the futuristic building of the State Museum of the History of Cosmonautics. Founded in 1961 by Yuri Gagarin, the museum was intended to popularize the exploration of space and promote Soviet advances in the field. As a high school student in Moscow, I remember coming here on a tour—one of 400,000 people who visited the museum every year during the 1980s. In the post-Soviet period, however, the number of visitors to Kaluga has plunged dramatically, as have the fortunes of the Russian space program. Government-sponsored tours to Kaluga were discontinued after the collapse of the Soviet government, but Sergeeva sees the situation starting to reverse. More than 100,000 people have visited the museum in each of the past two or three years, and she sees more people coming on their own, by car or by train, rather than as part of government tours.
Toward the end of his life Tsiolkovsky wrote, “My entire life consisted of musings, calculations, practical works and trials. Many questions remain unanswered, many works are incomplete or unpublished. The most important things still lie ahead.” The people who keep his legacy alive in Kaluga, and a generation raised on the triumphs and promises of the Russian space program, remain hopeful that this last statement is still true.