The Life of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, Rocket Science Pioneer

Portrait of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky
Portrait of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky.

Courtesy of the New Mexico Museum of Space History

Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky (September 17, 1857 – September 19, 1935) was a scientist, mathematician, and theoretician whose work became the basis for the development of rocket science in the Soviet Union. During his lifetime, he speculated about the possibility of sending people into space. Inspired by science fiction writer Jules Verne and his stories of space travel, Tsiolkovsky became known as the "father of rocket science and dynamics" whose work directly led to his country's involvement in the space race.

Early Years

Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky was born on September 17, 1857 in Ishevskoye, Russia. His parents were Polish; they raised 17 children in the harsh environment of Siberia. They recognized the young Konstantin's great interest in science, even as he suffered an attack of scarlet fever at the age of 10. This illness took away his hearing, and his formal schooling came to an end for a while, although he continued to learn by reading at home.

Eventually, Tsiolkovsky was able to gain enough education to start college in Moscow. He finished his education and qualified to become a teacher, working in a school in a town called Borovsk. That is where he married Varvara Sokolova. Together, they raised two children, Ignaty and Lyubov. He spent much of his life living in Kaluga, a small village near Moscow.

Developing the Principles of Rocketry

Tsiokovsky began his development of rocketry by considering philosophical principles of flight. Over the course of his career, he ultimately wrote more than 400 papers on that and related subjects. His first works began in the late 1800s when he wrote a paper called "Theory of Gases." In it, he examined the kinetics of gases, and then went on to study the theories of flight, aerodynamics, and the technical requirements for airships and other vehicles.

Tsiokovsky continued exploring a variety of flight issues, and in 1903, he published "The Exploration of Cosmic Space by Means of Reaction Devices." His calculations for achieving orbit, along with designs for rocket craft set the stage for later developments. He focused on specifics of rocket flight, and his rocket equation related the change in velocity for a rocket to the effective exhaust velocity (that is, how fast the rocket goes per unit of fuel it consumes). This came to be known as the "specific impulse." It also takes into account the mass of the rocket at the beginning of launch and its mass when the launch is finished.

He went on to work on solving problems in rocket flight, focusing on the role of rocket fuel in lofting a vehicle to space. He published the second part to his earlier work, where he discussed the effort a rocket must expend to overcome the force of gravity.

Tsiolkovsky stopped working on astronautics prior to World War I and spent the post-war years teaching mathematics. He was honored for his earlier work on astronautics by the newly formed Soviet government, which supplied backing for his continued research. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky died in 1935 and all his papers became the property of the Soviet state. For a while, they remained a closely guarded state secret. Nonetheless, his work influenced a generation of rocket scientists around the world.

Tsiolkovsky's Legacy

In addition to his theoretical work, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky developed aerodynamics test systems and studied the mechanics of flight. His papers covered aspects of dirigible design and flight, as well as the development of powered airplanes with light fuselages. Thanks to his deep research into principles of rocket flight, he has long been considered the father of rocket science and dynamics. Ideas based on his work informed later achievements by such well-known Soviet rocket experts as Sergei Korolev — an aircraft designer who became the chief rocket engineer for the Soviet Union's space efforts. The rocket engineer designer Valentin Glushko was also a follower of his work, and later in the early 20th century, German rocket expert Hermann Oberth was influenced by his research.

Tsiolkovsky is also often cited as the developer of astronautic theory. This body of work deals with the physics of navigation in space. To develop that, he carefully considered the types of masses that could be delivered to space, the conditions they would face in orbit, and how both rockets and astronauts would survive in the conditions of low Earth orbit. Without his painstaking research and writing, it's quite likely that modern aeronautics and astronautics would not have advanced as fast as it did. Along with Hermann Oberth and Robert H. Goddard, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky is considered one of the three fathers of modern rocketry.

Honors and Recognition

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was honored during his lifetime by the Soviet government, which elected him to the Socialist Academy in 1913. A monument to the Conquerors of Space in Moscow contains a statue of him. A crater on the Moon is named for him, and among other more modern honors, there was a Google Doodle created to honor his legacy. He was also honored on a commemorative coin in 1987.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky Fast Facts

  • Full Name: Konstantin Eduoardovich Tsiolkovsky
  • Occupation: Researcher and theorist 
  • Born: Sept. 17, 1857 in Izhevskoye, Russian Empire
  • Parents: Eduoard Tsiolkovsky, mother: name not known
  • Died: September 19, 1935 in Kaluka, Former Soviet Union
  • Education: self-educated, became a teacher; attended college in Moscow.
  • Key Publications: Investigations of Outer Space by Rocket Devices (1911), Aims of Astronauts (1914)
  • Spouse's Name: Varvara Sokolova
  • Children: Ignaty (son); Lyubov (daughter)
  • Research Area: Principles of aeronautics and astronautics

Sources

  • Dunbar, Brian. “Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky.” NASA, NASA, 5 June 2013, www.nasa.gov/audience/foreducators/rocketry/home/konstantin-tsiolkovsky.html.
  • European Space Agency, "Konstantin Tsiolkovsky". ESA, 22 October 2004, http://www.esa.int/Our_Activities/Human_Spaceflight/Exploration/Konstantin_Tsiolkovsky
  • Petersen, C.C. Space Exploration: Past, Present, Future. Amberley Books, England, 2017.