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

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. He started with the studies of aircraft and science fiction writing. In his 1894 article, entitled "Airplane, or Bird-like flying machine," Tsiolkovsky proposed the idea of a fully metal aircraft with aerodynamically advanced shape.

In 1895, he published "Grezy o Zemle i Nebe" (Dreams of the Earth and Sky) (see photo of the cover), which describes mankind’s settlement of space, complete with characters who mine asteroids and build orbital greenhouses.

Since around 1896, Tsiolkovsky studied extensively the theory of jet propulsion. In 1903, he succeeded in publishing a manuscript titled "Exploration of the World Space with Reaction Machines" in Nauchnoe Obozrenie (Scientific Review) magazine.

Today this work and several follow-on articles written in 1911, 1912 and 1914 are universally recognized as the world's first scientifically sound proposals to use rockets for exploring space. For decades afterward the work would stun readers with the completeness and level of detail with which Tsiolkovsky designed his spaceship. The mathematical relation he formulated between the changing mass of a rocket as it burns fuel, the velocity of exhaust gases, and the rocket’s final speed has since become known as Tsiolkovsky’s formula, and is considered one of the foundations of the science of astronautics.

Amazingly, more than two decades before Robert Goddard launched the world’s first liquid-fueled rocket, Tsiolkovsky fueled his theoretical engine with a mix of liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, the same combination used today on the Space Shuttle, and still considered the most efficient of rocket propellants. Tsiolkovsky arrived at the combination with little hope of testing his theory. He never attempted to build a rocket engine, let alone a spaceship. His discoveries stemmed from a thorough grounding in physics and mathematics, an awareness of the latest achievements in technology (for example, James Dewar first liquefied hydrogen in 1898), and a gift for prediction.

For all its prescient brilliance, Tsiolkovsky's manuscript reached Nauchnoe Obozrenie at a bad time, just after its publisher had died and the magazine was about to fold. (Some sources say that manuscript was sent to the magazine five years before it was actually published.)

Only a few copies of the magazine were distributed before the press run was confiscated, according to Galina Sergeeva, deputy director for scientific research at the State Museum of Cosmonautics, located near Tsiolkovsky’s house in Kaluga. "Until the 1960s, it was believed that this work had never made it outside Russia, when, with the help of American researchers, a copy of Nauchnoe Obozrenie containing Tsiolkovky’s article was discovered in the Library of Congress," Sergeeva said.

Publication dates for Tsiolkovsky’s early works became an issue years later when he and his followers, both in the USSR and abroad, struggled to establish the scientist's priority in postulating key astronautical concepts. In the 1920s, Tsiolkovsky learned about the work of German space pioneer Hermann Oberth, who, working with no knowledge of Tsiolkovsky's writing, published his key proposals for rocket-powered spaceflight in 1923. Tsiolkovsky wrote to Oberth, asserting his rights as the the first to conceive of rocket flight.

"Tsiolkovsky deeply cared about his priority in the field," said his granddaughter Elena Timoshenkova, director of the museum that has been made from the Tsiolkovsky's house in Kaluga, "He often published his work himself and would send it to leading scientists. However, there was almost no response. He understood precisely that he was a genius, one of those people who move humanity forward,” Sergeeva adds. Ironically, it was Oberth who later helped make Tsiolkovsky’s name widely known in the West.

In 1926, Tsiolkovsky published, a bold 16-step program whereby human civilization could outlive its dying sun and settle the universe. The scheme called for rocket-powered airplanes, the use of plants for life support, and solar radiation to grow food and supply energy. He predicted the need for spacefarers to use pressurized suits when leaving the spacecraft, and envisioned the construction of large orbital settlements. According to Tsiolkovsky, humans would colonize the asteroid belt, the solar system, and ultimately the galaxy.

That work was followed three years later by "The Space Rocket Trains", which advanced Tsiolkovsky’s earlier thoughts about multistage rockets. His calculations proved that building a rocket with separate stages, each of which would be jettisoned as it finished consuming its propellants, would allow a payload to be accelerated indefinitely.

Tsiolkovsky’s publications are full of ideas that would later become common practice in aerospace engineering. He proposed using graphite rudders to steer a rocket in flight, cryogenic propellants to cool combustion chambers and nozzles, and pumps to drive propellant from storage tanks into the combustion chamber. He considered human factors as well—at the dawn of the Space Age, the first cosmonauts were amazed by the accuracy of Tsiolkovsky’s descriptions of life in weightlessness.

Tsiolkovsky and his time

Few Tsiolkovsky's contemporaries recognized the significance of his writings. To his neighbors in Kaluga, he was just an eccentric schoolteacher. According to Galina Sergeeva, the townspeople "sometimes saw this almost deaf old man walking along the street, mumbling something incomprehensible to himself."

In 1899 Tsiolkovsky started teaching physics and math at Kaluga’s Religious School for Girls, and many of his pupils would later recount fond memories of him. "He was able to explain difficult things in really simple terms," says Sergeeva, citing the former students. According to Tsiolkovsky's own recollections, 1,500 girls and 1,500 boys

Modern pilgrims to the Tsiolkovsky house — a two-story wooden cottage the family bought in 1905 — are taken through a gate into a small garden squeezed between the house and the property next door. Inside, the cottage is modest, almost ascetic: white walls, simple wooden furniture. The most luxurious touch on the first floor is a large chimney covered with glossy tiles decorated with traditional Russian ornaments.

From the hallway, a steep stairway goes up to Tsiolkovsky’s workroom and lab. According to Timoshenkova, Russian cosmonauts, who made frequent visits to the house, nicknamed the steps the "space stairway." At the top of the stairs is a trap door. "His children knew," Timoshenkova says, "when this door was closed, nobody could go upstairs to bother him. He was very strict with his children, but became much softer with the grandchildren."

(One of Tsiolkovsky's children, Ignaty, who was born in 1883, committed suicide in 1902, during his years in Moscow University.) (165)

Tsiolkovsky's office has a writing desk and another desk on which are displayed various gadgets of the time, including a camera with an old-fashioned accordion-like case. A telescope rests on a wooden tripod by the desk. One of the windows faces a terrace that served as the scientist's lab, which for Russians is probably the most recognizable part of the Kaluga house. A long joiner's bench runs along the main wall, and a model of a metal airship is suspended from the ceiling. In a corner is the scientist's bicycle, which Timoshenkova believes was one of the first in Kaluga. In the 1930s, Tsiolkovsky was often seen riding his bike in the city's main park, which remained one of his favorite places until his last days.


Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (sitting on the right) among the teachers of Kaluga's district school (Uezdnoe Uchilishe) in 1895. Credit: Kaluga Museum of Cosmonautics

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (sitting on the right) among the teachers of Kaluga's religious school for girls (Eparkhialnoe Uchilishe) on Jan. 12, 1914. Credit: Kaluga Museum of Cosmonautics

Tsiolkovsky's house in Kaluga. Copyright © 2001 by Anatoly Zak

Tsiolkovsky's workshop on the second floor of his house in Kaluga. Copyright © 2001 by Anatoly Zak

Early edition of Tsiolkovsky's book entitled "Grezy o Zemle i Nebe" (Dreams of Earth and Sky). Copyright © 2001 by Anatoly Zak


The 1914 edition of the Tsiolkovsky's revolutionary work "Exploration of the World Space with Reaction Machines."

Early editions of Tsiolkovsky's science fiction novel entitled "Na Lune" (On the Moon). Copyright © 2001 by Anatoly Zak


Tsiolkovsky was photographed in his office on March 15, 1930. Credit: Tsiolkovksy Museum of Cosmonautics


Tsiolkovsky with his family in May 1932. Siting left to right: Tsiolkosky's daughter M. Kostina; Tsiolkovsky's wife, Varvara; Konstantin Tsiolkovsky; Zhenya, Lesha and Musya Kostin -- Tsiolkovsky's grandchildren. Standing Vladimir Kiselev, Vera and Viniamin Kostin. Credit: Tsiolkovksy Museum of Cosmonautics

Tsiolkovsky's grave in Kaluga. Copyright © 2001 by Anatoly Zak