Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and his Role in Rocket Science
— by Lisa Richards, Educational Outreach Writer
Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a Russian scientist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is widely regarded today as the 'father of rocketry.' Among his many contributions to the fields of astronautics and cosmonautics, Tsiolkovsky was the first to solve the problem of propelling a rocket against the forces of the Earth's gravitational field, an innovation that paved the way to space exploration. Tsiolkovsky believed that his theories regarding space exploration would not become useful for many generations. In fact, his work was rapidly enlisted in the spate of 'Space Age' research that began within just decades of Tsiolkovsky's death.
Tsiolkovsky was born in 1957 in Izhevskoye, Russia, to a Polish deportee. When he was ten years old, Tsiolkovsky contracted scarlet fever. As a consequence of his illness, he became deaf, which required him to withdraw from standard schooling. Biographers also attribute the disease and its effects as dramatically shaping Tsiolkovsky's social development and his 'immersion' in his scientific interests. Instead of studying in the village school, Tsiolkovsky studied independently at home. He systematically read every book in his father's library. By the age of 16, he had adequately prepared himself to be accepted into a program of university studies in Moscow. Upon graduation, Tsiolkovsky became a teacher of science and mathematics, living in Borovsk and later in Kaluga.
During his adult life, Tsiolkovsky was an ardent reader of Jules Verne's works, especially tales of exploring outer space, and he began to write stories himself. Tsiolkovsky used his knowledge of science and mathematics to add an impressive degree of technical detail to his stories. Eventually, Tsiolkovsky shifted his focus, writing scientific papers instead of fiction stories. He addressed a range of theoretical problems including escape velocities, liquid propellants, gyroscopes, and various problems related to action and reaction. Some of Tsiolkovsky's papers included detailed explanations of airlocks to deal with the vacuum of outer space, closed biological systems to provide food and oxygen to space colonies, and rockets with steering abilities. In total, Tsiolkovsky wrote around 500 tracts, essays, papers and stories related to space travel and related scientific subjects. In his work 'The Investigation of Space By Means of Reactive Devices,' he first offered theoretical proof space flight was possible. Aerospace students still learn his basic equation for surpassing the forces of the Earth's gravity as the 'Tsiolkovsky Equation.'
Tsiolkovsky's achievements were not only theoretical. He also drew up plans for a monoplane in 1894, which was flown successfully over twenty years later, in 1915. In 1897, he built the first wind tunnel in Russia, which proved vital for future research projects.
Tsiolkovsky also had great faith in a vision of mankind successfully expanding beyond Earth, in triumphant colonization of space. He famously wrote, 'The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever.' In his scientific and his more novelistic writings, Tsiolkovsky affirmed the goal of space exploration to be the pursuit of happiness, both for human beings and any other forms of life. Tsiolkovsky believed, further, that living in outer space, without the forces of gravity, would positively impact human development, both physiologically and mentally. He predicted that mankind's expansion into outer space would transform our thinking patterns and even elevate our moral and ethical sense.
Today, Tsiolkovsky's writings are considered the founding works of the field that became known as rocket dynamics. While the use of rockets dates back to 12th century China, Tsiolkovsky was the first to study their operation within a mathematical and scientific framework, eventually laying the groundwork for rocket-powered launches beyond the Earth's atmosphere. For these reasons, Tsiolkovsky is often considered a principal forerunner to the space age.