Konstantin Tsiolkovsky «First Human Depiction of Weightlessness» 1878.


Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Weightlessness Sketch
Source: Tsiolkovsky Museum of Cosmonautics

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. Dmitri 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. «I do not remember how it got into my head to make first calculations related to rocket,» Tsiolkovsky later wrote, «It seems to me the first seeds were planted by famous fantaseour, J. Verne.»

Experiments with gases gave Tsiolkovsky 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 depiction 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 finally, 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.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Astronomical Drawing
Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Astronomical Drawing
Astronomical Drawings made by Tsiolkovsky in the summer of 1878, believed to include the first human depiction of weightlessness.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, rocket sketch
Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Tsiolkovsky Museum of Cosmonautics, Rocket Sketch
Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Tsiolkovsky Museum of Cosmonautics, Rocket Sketch

In the village of Dolgoe of Pronskiy Uezd, an event took place that would change Tsiolkovsky’s life forever.

«Age of 10 or 11, at the beginning of winter, I rode a toboggan,» Tsiolkovsky later wrote, «Caught a cold. 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.

«Besides books I had no other teachers,» Tsiolkovsky later wrote. His family sent 16-year-old Konstantin to Moscow, where he taught himself at Chertkovskaya Library, which held the country's finest collection of books. Konstantin studied mathematics, analytical mechanics, astronomy, physics, chemistry, as well as classical literature. «I ate just black bread, didn't have even potatoes and tea,» Tsiolkovsky 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.»

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, sketch
Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, sketch

During much of his life Tsiolkovsky saw his own theories about space flight as calculations of the distant future rather than prophecies of the coming space age. «It is difficult to foresee the fate of any thought or discovery, whether it will be a reality, in what form, to what it will lead, to what extent it will change and improve human life, and whether it will radically transform our views and our science,» Tsiolkovsky wrote in a 1927 letter to Nikolai Rynin, a restless Russian propagandist of space flight.

In 1931, at the sunset of Tsiolkovsky's life, Rynin published a book assessing the life of the «dreamer from Kaluga.» «Everywhere in all of his works, K. Tsiolkovsky demonstrates originality and ingenuity ... on many questions he was ahead of many European researchers, and in some he independently came to the same conclusions that were obtained abroad.» Rynin documented 88 major works, published by Tsiolkovsky and 55 manuscripts. Rynin saw Tsiolkovsky's proposals for rocket-powered spaceship and metal-skin airship as most crucial achievements of the prolific scientist.

Despite all the efforts by Nikolai Rynin and other propagandists of space flight; for decades to come, Tsiolkovsky's theories remained largely unknown in the West. Yet, his influence on the first generation of the Russian space engineers is unquestionable, and he, certainly deserves a credit in helping making Russia a pioneering space-faring nation.

In the fall of 1923, Tsiolkovsky 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. In February 1934, chief of Rocket Research Institute, RNII, Ivan Kleimenov and the institute's leading engineer Mikhail Tikhonravov visited ailing Tsiolkovsky in Kaluga. Tikhonravov then popularized Tsiolkovsky ideas in the article entitled «Work of Tsiolkovsky and Modern Rocket Development» published in 1939.

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 and the spacecraft. 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 Yaroslav Golovanov, Korolev’s biographer, 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.»

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Tsiolkovsky Portraits on ISS
Tsiolkovsky portraits on ISS.

With the collapse of the USSR, a full and honest discussion of Tsiolkovsky’s legacy, began at last. Freedom of speech in the post-Soviet Russia inevitably gave rise to the opposite extreme of the Soviet propaganda -- the effort by some Russian authors to dethrone and vilify Tsiolkovsky and his legacy. «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 Tsiolkovsky's work also has brought to light his views on eugenics — specifically, his advocacy of the creation of a 'better' human race. Despite his remarkable gifts for prediction, Tsiolkovsky could hardly foresee that just a few years after his death, the Nazi regime in 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, sits the futuristic building of the State Museum of Cosmonautics. Symbolically, founded in 1961 by Yuri Gagarin, the museum was intended to popularize the exploration of space and promote Soviet advances in the field. The creation of the museum, commemorating the Tsiolkovsky's legacy started immediately after the scientist's death in 1935. Lubov Tsiolkovskaya, the eldest daughter of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky made considerable effort to preserve the memory of her father. (165) Some 400,000 people 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 Union, but Sergeeva saw the statistics reverse at the end of the 1990s. More than 100,000 people have visited the museum in the last three years of the 20th century, and she saw more people coming on their own, by car or by train, rather than as part of official government tours.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Tsiolkovsky Museum of Cosmonautics
Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Space Plane model, Tsiolkovsky Museum
Space Plane, Tsiolkovsky Museum of Cosmonautics, Kaluga, Russia.

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.»

Tsiolkovsky evolved from fiction writer to scientist and theoretician. Hypotheses and calculations followed on a board spectrum of matters: gyroscopic stabilization; escape velocities from the earth's gravitational field; the principle of reactive action; and the use of liquid propellants for rockets. His "Tsiolkovsky Formula" established the relationship between rocket speed, the speed of the gas at exit and the mass of the rocket and its propellant. This fundamental principle remains basic to contemporary astronautics.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Autograph Partial Manuscript signed: K E Tsiolkovski peak on moon.
Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, peak on moon.
Oblique image of the 185 km diameter Tsiolkovsky crater, centered at 21.2 S, 128.9 E on the far side of the Moon.

In 1903 Tsiolkovsky's article "The Investigation of Outer Space with Rocket Devices" appeared in the "Naootchnoe Obozreniye" (Scientific Review). It suggested the use of liquid propellants for rockets in order to achieve greater range. Tsiolkovsky stated that the speed and range of a rocket were limited by the exhaust velocity of escaping gases. He clearly outlined in scientific terms how a reaction thrust motor could demonstrate Newton's Third Law to allow men to escape the bounds of earth.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Autograph Partial Manuscript signed: K E Tsiolkovski making reference to a rocket's hypothetical trajectory and speed while in flight.
KONSTANTIN TSIOLKOVSKY. Autograph Partial Manuscript signed: "K E Tsiolkovski", 2p, 4«x7«. In Russian, untranslated, but making reference to a rocket's hypothetical trajectory and speed while in flight. Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935) was a pioneering Russian scientist and rocket designer who laid out the basic principles of modern space flight. Deaf from age 10, Tsiolkovsky was self-educated. His article, "Research into Interplanetary Space by Means of Rocket Power" was published in 1903, the year of the Wright brothers' flight! In over 500 publications on related themes, Tsiolkovsky predicted and described such phenomena as the mathematical possibility of space flight, weightlessness in space, use of pressure suits in the vacuum of space, orbiting space colonies, and the exploration and colonization of our Solar system and then the entire galaxy. Though he launched no rockets himself, he was revered by later generations of Soviet scientists and cosmonauts. Lightly stained on first (nonsignature) side. Slightly creased. Overall fine condition.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Autograph Partial Manuscript signed: K E Tsiolkovski informed of wind tunnel construction 1897.
1897: Tsiolvovsky informed of wind tunnel construction.

sources: russianspaceweb.com, Tsiolkovsky Museum of Cosmonautics, t-measurement.net, historyforsale.com , videocosmos.com