Tsiolkovsky, Konstantin

views updated

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky

Born September 17, 1857 (Izhevskoye, Russia)

Died September 19, 1935 (Kaluga, Russia)

Russian aerospace engineer

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (pronounced KAHN-stan-tyeen tsee-ohl-KAHV-skee) was one of the greatest Russian scientists of the early twentieth century. Along with American physicist Robert Goddard (1882–1945; see entry) and German physicist Hermann Oberth (1894–1989; see entry), he is considered a founding father of spaceflight. Almost entirely self-educated, Tsiolkovsky studied and wrote about a wide range of scientific topics, but he is best known for his pioneering work in astronautics. In the 1890s he began calculations on the mathematics and physics of spaceflight, which he saw as the first step in the colonization of space by humans.

"I had to figure out everything by myself."

Throughout his life Tsiolkovsky saw himself as a scientist who not only worked on abstract problems but also strived for the betterment of human existence. On October 4, 1957, twenty-two years after his death, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite (an object that orbits in space; see Sergei Korolev [1907–1966] entry). Soviet officials attempted to send the satellite into space on September 17, the one hundredth anniversary of Tsiolkovsky's birth. Although that deadline was not met, the flight was dedicated to Tsiolkovsky.

Loses his hearing

Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky was born on September 17, 1857, in the Russian village of Izhevskoye in the province of Ryazan. His mother was the former Maria Yumasheva and his father, Eduard Tsiolkovsky, was a forester, teacher, and minor government official. The Tsiolkovsky family moved frequently while Konstantin was young, and their financial situation was often difficult. Until age ten he led a typical childhood, playing games, ice skating, flying kites, and climbing fences. Then disaster struck in 1867, when Tsiolkovsky became seriously ill and lost his hearing. For a long time he was deeply depressed about his misfortune, but he gradually worked his way through this difficult period. He then pursued an intense interest in science, teaching himself at every step along the way. In his autobiography Tsiolkovsky explained that "there were very few books, and I had no teachers at all…. There were no hints, no aid from anywhere; there was a great deal that I couldn't understand in those books and I had to figure out everything by myself."

In 1873 Tsiolkovsky's father acquired enough money to send him to Moscow. Tsiolkovsky continued his self-education in the rich intellectual environment of the city. He devised an ear trumpet that enabled him to hear lectures, but he could not afford to enroll in a formal college or university program. At the end of three years in Moscow, Tsiolkovsky returned to his hometown. He continued to teach himself science, building models of various kinds of machines and carrying out original experiments.

Writes about his ideas

In 1879 Tsiolkovsky passed the examination for a teacher's license and took a job as instructor of arithmetic and geometry at the Borovsk Uyzed School in Kaluga. Continuing his research, in 1880 he wrote his first scientific paper, "The Graphical Depiction of Sensations," an effort to express human sensations in strict mathematical formulas. A year later Tsiolkovsky wrote "The Theory of Gasses," which he submitted to the Russian Physico-Chemical Society. The group admired his work and offered support for his future research but decided that the paper did not qualify for publication. In 1883 he completed "On the Theoretical Mechanics of Living," an analysis of the ways natural forces, such as gravity, affect the structure and movement of human beings. Although this paper was not published, the Physico-Chemical Society was impressed and accepted Tsiolkovsky as a member.

Tsiolkovsky started the next phase of his work, developing theories of flight and aircraft, in the mid-1880s. His interest in flight can be traced at least to age fifteen, when he posed for himself the problem of determining the size a balloon must be in order to carry people into the air. More than a decade later he wrote on this subject in "The Theory and Experiment of a Horizontally Elongated Balloon." He designed a metal lighter-than-air machine, now called a dirigible, but he could not obtain funding to build a working model. Those who granted money for scientific research saw no practical use for such an invention.

Tsiolkovsky was also thinking about heavier-than-air craft. One of his first papers on the subject was "On the Problem of Flying by Means of Wings," which he wrote in 1890. In this work he completed one of the earliest mathematical studies of forces operating on the wings and body of an aircraft. He then produced studies on the shape of aircraft fuselages (FYOO-seh-lahg-ez; the main bodies of airplanes), the use of internal engines, the shape of wings, and other important features of heavier-than-air machines. During this time he married Barbara E. Sokolova, the daughter of a local preacher. They later had three daughters and four sons.

Tsiolkovsky was aware that most of his ideas needed to be tested in actual experiments. Taking a step toward this goal, he designed the first wind tunnel built in Russia. Put in operation in Kaluga in 1897, the wind tunnel produced a stream of air that could be forced over aircraft bodies and wings of various sizes, shapes, and designs. Tsiolkovsky described the preliminary results of his experiments in "Air Pressure on Surfaces Introduced into an Artificial Air Flow." Encouraged by his success, he appealed to the Russian Academy of Sciences for a grant that would allow him to expand his wind tunnel experiments. He was successful in getting an award of 470 rubles (about $235 at the time) to build a larger wind tunnel. In May 1900 he began construction of a larger wind tunnel, and he undertook experiments before the end of that year.

Develops theories of space travel

Tsiolkovsky will be remembered probably best for his accomplishments in the field of astronautics, or space travel. He had started thinking about space travel during his stay in Moscow. By the late 1870s he was producing ideas about spacecraft and space travel at an astonishing rate, touching on virtually every aspect of the subject. In about 1879, for example, he designed an instrument for measuring the effects of gravitational acceleration (an increase in the force of gravity) on the human body. Four years later, he outlined the mechanism by which a jet rocket could carry an object into space.

In the early 1890s Tsiolkovsky wrote about travel to the Moon, other planets, and beyond. Published in 1895, his paper "Dreams of the Earth and Sky and the Effects of Universal Gravitation" introduced the concept of an artificial Earth. He described it as being somewhat similar to the Moon. By the following year Tsiolkovsky had identified the mathematical formulas needed to describe the movement of a spacecraft. A year later he worked out the fundamental relationship between the velocity (speed) and mass of a rocket and the exhaust velocity of the propellant used to send it into space. That formula is now known as the basic rocket equation.

As a result of his research Tsiolkovsky realized that the most efficient way of placing rockets into space is to arrange them in packets, or "cosmic rocket trains." Writing about rocket trains in an article in 1929, he originated the concept that is today called "rocket staging." This process involves a series of rocket engines being fired at specific intervals to put an object into space. By the end of his life Tsiolkovsky had investigated virtually every technical question pertaining to space travel. He determined the kinds of fuels that would work best as rocket propellants, eventually settling on a mixture of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen as the best choice.

Envisions colonization of space

In 1903 Tsiolkovsky completed a historic paper, "Investigations of Outer Space by Reaction Devices," which summarized his work. The paper did not actually appear in print until it was published in the journal Vestnik vozdukhoplavaniya (Herald of Aeronautics; 1911–12). This paper also outlined Tsiolkovsky's views on the colonization of space. He argued that space travel should not be viewed as some abstract scientific experiment but as a way of creating new human communities outside Earth. In 1920 Tsiolkovsky published Beyond the Earth, a popular book that described space travel and living in space to nonscientists.

Tsiolkovsky's first sixty years were extremely difficult, not only because he lived in poverty but also because his colleagues were indifferent to his work. The October Revolution (an overthrow of the Russian monarchy by the Communist Party) of 1917 brought a dramatic change in Tsiolkovsky's situation. He was elected a member of the Socialist Academy and given a pension by the Council of the Peoples' Commissariats of the Russian Federation. For the first time in his life he could concentrate on scientific research with some degree of comfort. An indication of the impact of this pension on Tsiolkovsky's productivity is the fact that about 25 percent of his more than five hundred papers were written in the six decades between 1857 and 1917. He wrote the remaining 75 percent in the last two decades of his life.

In the late 1920s Tsiolkovsky spent more time on problems of aeronautics (the science of flight). Typical of his papers from this period were "A New Airplane" and "Reactive Airplane" as well as studies of topics unrelated to air and space travel. Among them were a common alphabet, the future of Earth and humanity, and solar energy. During his lifetime he also wrote science-fiction books, including On the Moon (1895), Dreams of the Earth and Sky (1895), and Beyond the Earth (1920). In an effort to secure a pension for his family, on September 13, 1935, Tsiolkovsky willed his books and papers to the Communist Party and the Soviet government. He died at his home in Kaluga six days later, and the government honored him with a state funeral. He was buried in the Kaluga cemetery near his home, which was later made into a museum. During World War II (1939–45) the museum was badly damaged. After the launching of Sputnik 1, the Tsiolkovsky home-museum became a popular sightseeing stop for visitors.

For More Information


Dickson, Paul. Sputnik: The Launch of the Space Race. Toronto, Ontario: MacFarlane, Walter & Ross, 2002.

Heppenheimer, T. A. Countdown: A History of Space Flight. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1987.

Tsiolkovsky, Konstantin. K. E. Tsiolkovsky: Selected Works. Translated by G. Yankovsky. Moscow: Mir, 1968.


Frazier, Allison. "They Gave Us Space: Space Pioneers of the 20th Century." Ad Astra (January/February 2000): pp. 25–26.

Yeomans, Donald. "'Space Travel Is Utter Bilge.'" Astronomy (January 2004): pp. 48+.

Zak, Anatoly. "Konstantin Tsiolkovsky Slept Here." Air & Space Smithsonian (August/September 2002): pp. 62+.

Web Sites

"Konstantin Tsiolkovsky." Inventors.About.comhttp://www.inventors.about.com/library/inventors/blrocketTsiolkovsky.htm (accessed on June 29, 2004).

Lethbridge, Cliff. "Konstantin Eduardovitch Tsiolkovsky." Spaceline.http://www.spaceline.org/history/21.html (accessed on July 2, 2004).

The Life of Konstantin Eduardovitch Tsiolkovsky, 1857–1935.www.informatics.org/museum/tsiol.html (accessed on June 29, 2004).