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To Open The Sky

The Front Pages of Christopher P. Winter

The Birth of Rocket Science

Konstantin Eduardovitch Tsiolkovsky

Tsiolkovsky was born on September 17, 1857, in the village of Ijevskoe, Ryasan Province, Russia, the son of a Polish forester who had emigrated to Russia. He was not from a rich family, but a very large one; Konstantin Tsiolkovsky had 17 brothers and sisters. At the age of nine or ten he contracted scarlet fever, which left him almost totally deaf. Barred from school thereafter, he took to books avidly, teaching himself first mathematics and then physics.

Impressed by Tsiolkovsky's dedication to learning, his father made sure he had a chance to attend Moscow's Technical Institute. He remained there three years, then was forced to return home to support the family. Tutoring brought in some money, and Tsiolkovsky soon earned a certificate as "People's School Teacher", the lowest ranking in the Tsarist education system. In 1879 he married, and in 1881 began his researches into three problems: the development of an all-metal dirigible, an airplane, and a rocket to explore interplanetary space. By 1883, ten years after conceiving the idea of space vehicles driven by centrifugal force, Tsiolkovsky had decided that only jet propulsion was equal to the task. He set forth these ideas in a manuscript entitled "Free Space".

Work on metal dirigibles occupied Tsiolkovsky through 1892. His designs used movable metal side panels to vary the volume, and thus the altitude, of the dirigible. But the Russian agencies to which he sent proposals rejected his concepts.

Tsiolkovsky is also credited with proposing the first all-metal airplane. He built the first wind tunnel in Russia in 1890 and used it to perform 1,000 experiments in aerodynamics. In an 1894 article called "The Airplane, a Birdlike Flying Machine", he described a monoplane with rounded wings and a streamlined fuselage, much like those that were constructed fifteen years later. He concluded that the gasoline internal combustion engine was the proper power source for such craft. Yet his ideas were rejected by the scientific agencies to which he applied for funding, and he ultimately abandoned such research.

By 1897, Tsiolkovsky had deduced the Rocket Equation. He developed its applications in a classic paper, "Investigating Space with Reaction Vehicles", published in the magazine Survey of Science in 1903. This paper also examined the characteristics and utility of many propellant candidates.

Elected to the newly formed Russian Socialist Academy in 1918, Tsiolkovsky received a pension. He spent the next few years working on other aspects of space flight, including the difficult problem of re-entry. The remainder of his life was devoted to solving various problems of transportation, on land as well as in the air and space. He described multistage rockets in a 1924 book, Cosmic Rocket Trains. Tsiolkovsky continued writing until six days before his death on 19 September 1935, at the age of 78. He bequeathed all his notes and publications to the Soviet Government. This work inspired and taught many of the next generation of Soviet astronautics experts. Today he is a Hero of the Soviet Union and renowned as the father of Russian astronautics. A monument at his house in Kaluga (where he lived from 1892 to 1935) was dedicated in 1958. On its granite pedestal are inscribed these words, from a letter he wrote in 1911:

Mankind will not remain forever confined to
the Earth. In pursuit of light and space it
will, timidly at first, probe the limits of
the atmosphere and later extend its control
to the entire solar system.

Notes

  1. The parallels in the lives of Tsiolkovsky and Goddard are interesting. Both were the sons of men skilled with tools and blessed with ingenuity. Both had their schooling interrupted due to illness. Both conceived of, and soon rejected as nonsensical, the idea of propulsion by eccentric rotation. And both endured official indifference to their innovations, for at least the early years.
  2. More information about the Father of Russian Astronautics can be found at The Tsiolkovsky Museum Web site.
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