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Author thanks Galina Sergeeva at Tsiolkovsky museum in Kaluga and Elena Timoshenkova, a granddaughter of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky for their help in preparing this section.

Tsiolkovsky and his legacy

Today, in the middle of Kaluga's city park, a stone monument marks Tsiolkovsky’s grave, with the engraving "Here lies the great Russian scientist Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky 17 IX 1857—19 IX 1935." Shortly before his death, he wrote: "All my life I have dreamed that by my work mankind would at least be advanced a little."

Whether this wish came true is a matter of some debate. When mankind did in fact reach outer space, it was a Russian, Yuri Gagarin, who went first. But was it Tsiolkovsky’s ideas that got him there?

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 "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. (122)

Tsiolkovsky and the Soviet space program

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. (126)

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.

A future father of the Soviet nuclear rocketry, Dmitry Blokhintsev, at young age also reportedly communicated with Tsiolkovsky and even met him.

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."

Rethinking Tsiolkovsky

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.

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 is reading his correspondence on Aug. 16, 1935. Credit: Kaluga Museum of Cosmonautics

The cover of Tsiolkovsky's biography, called "Tsiolkovsky, His Life, Works and Rockets", by Nikolai Rynin published in 1931. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak

Scale model of the space plane based on Tsiolkovsky's ideas. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak


Scale model of the multi-body airship based on Tsiolkovsky's ideas. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak


Scale model of a space station based on Tsiolkovsky's ideas. Copyright © 2001 Anatoly Zak