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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.


Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was born on September 17, 1857, in the village of Izhevskoe in the Ryazan Province, south of Moscow. Konstantin, or Kostya for short, was fifth out of 18 children in the family.

Konstantin's father -- Polish immigrant Eduard Ignatievich Tsiolkovsky -- came to work to Izhevskoe as a forester in June 1849. At the time the family settled in Izhevskoe, the village was booming; with the population of 7,628 it was the fourth largest settlement in the Ryazan Province.

In Ryazan and Vyatka

Soon after Kostya’s birth, his father had to leave his job in the village of Izhevskoe. From November 1857 to April 1858, the family temporarily lived in the village of Dolgoe of Pronskiy Uezd (Town of Pronsk) with the parents of Konstantin's mother, after which the family settled in Ryazan, where it remained for 10 years. There 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," he 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.

In 1868, the Tsiolkovsky family moved to Vyatka, some 500 miles northeast of Ryazan, where Kostya entered the town’s school for boys. Public education was a struggle, however, and he eventually was suspended at the age 14. From then on, Tsiolkovsky was entirely self-educated. "Besides books I had no other teachers," he later wrote.

Moscow period

From Vyatka, the 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. Unfortunately, his father could send only kopecks to support him. "I ate just black bread, didn't have even potatoes and tea," he 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."

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."

Unlike most of his contemporaries, however, Tsiolkovsky did more than simply marvel at Verne’s descriptions of fantastic journeys. He questioned their practicality. He understood that shooting spacecraft from a giant cannon, Verne's method of reaching the moon, would inevitably kill its passengers due to the force of acceleration.

Return to Ryazan

In 1876, upon request of his father, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, had returned to Vyatka. Two years later, Konstantin's father retired and the family returned to Ryazan In September 1879, upon his return to Ryazan, Tsiolkovsky’s years of self-directed study paid off when he passed the exam to get a teacher's certificate. Around that time Konstantin began drafting his first scientific work, which later became a base for the book "Grezy o Zemle i Nebe" (Dreams of Earth and Sky). (159)

Also in Ryazan, Tsiolkovsky, built a centrifuge to simulate different levels of gravity and test their effects on chickens.

Borovsk period

In January 1880, the Ministry of Education assigned 22-year-old Konstantin to teach arithmetic and geometry in the local school (Uezdnoe Uchilishe) in the town of Borovsk, Kaluga Region. In comparison to Ryazan it was a backwater, located about 70 miles south of Moscow. Borovsk had a reputation as a town of truck farmers and traders, whose drunken fistfights and belief in witchcraft made them the laughingstock of the neighboring towns. It was here that Tsiolkovsky settled and raised a family.

In Borovsk, in August 1880, Tsiolkovsky married Varvara Sokolova, the daughter of a local preacher. The couple rented several houses during their 12 years in Borovsk, one of which became a museum when the 140th anniversary of the scientist's birth was celebrated in 1997.

While in Borovsk, Tsiolkovsky experimented with physical processes, particularly the properties of gases. Unaware about the latest discoveries in the field, Tsiolkovsky wrote "Theory of Gases," describing kinetic properties of gases. 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. His first work on the subject, published in 1892, proposed an airship with metal skin. However, Tsiolkovsky's attempts to sell the idea to the Russian military were unsuccessful. (2)

Kaluga period

In February 1892, Tsiolkovskiy was promoted to another teaching position, in the provincial capital of Kaluga, which must have seemed a metropolis compared to Borovsk. Tsiolkovsky would remain in Kaluga until his death in 1935, and it was there that he created the monumental body of work that secured his place as a prophet of the Space Age.


A house on Pol'naya Street in the village of Izhevskoe, where Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was born on Sept. 17, 1857. Tsiolkovsky's family moved in this house in the summer of 1854. Copyright © 2001 by Anatoly Zak

A record in the register of the Nikolskaya Church, in Izhevskoe, about the birth of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Credit: Tsiolkovsky Museum in Izhevskoe.

Kostya Tsiolkovsky at the age of six or seven in Ryazan. Credit: Tsiolkovsky Museum in Izhevskoe.

Boys' gymnasium in Vyatka, where Kostya Tsiolkovsky went to school during 1869-1873. Credit: Tsiolkovsky Museum in Borovsk

Ryazan school for boys, where in September 1879, Tsiolkovsky passed exams for the teacher's certificate. Credit: Tsiolkovsky Museum in Izhevskoe.

One of the homes Tsiolkovsky rented during his stay in Borovsk. Copyright © 2001 by Anatoly Zak

A church in the town of Borovsk, where Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was married in August 1880. Copyright © 2001 by Anatoly Zak

Believed to be the earliest drawing of a spacecraft made by Tsiolkovsky circa 1883. Credit: Tsiolkovsky Museum of Cosmonautics

"Astronomical Drawings" made by Tsiolkovsky in the summer of 1878, believed to include the first human depiction of weightlessness. Credit:Cosmonautics Museum in Kaluga