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.