Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovskii

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Tsiolkovskii, Konstantin Eduardovich


Born Sept. 5 (17), 1857, in the village of Izhevskoe, in what is now Riazan’ Oblast; died Sept. 19, 1935, in Kaluga. Soviet Russian scientist and inventor in aerodynamics, rocketry, and airplane and dirigible theory; the founder of modern astronautics.

Tsiolkovskii was the son of a forestry officer. He almost completely lost his hearing in childhood as a result of scarlet fever. His deafness prevented him from continuing his education in school, and so from the age of 14 he studied at home. When he was 16, he went to Moscow, where he stayed for three years, studying mathematics and the physical sciences at the secondary-school and university level. In 1879 he passed the teachers’ examination as an extramural student, and in 1880 he was appointed a teacher of arithmetic and geometry at the uezdnoe uchilishche (district school) in Borovsk, Kaluga Province.

Tsiolkovskii carried out his first scientific work in this period. Not knowing of the discoveries already made in the kinetic theory of gases, he in 1880 and 1881 wrote “The Theory of Gases,” in which he set forth the principles of the kinetic theory. His second work, “The Mechanics of the Animal Organism,” which was also written in 1880 and 1881, received a favorable response from I. M. Sechenov, and Tsiolkovskii was accepted into the Russian Physical-Chemical Society.

After 1884, Tsiolkovskii’s main works dealt with four principal problems: the construction of an all-metal dirigible, the streamlining of airplanes, the development of a train that rides on an air cushion, and the theory of interplanetary rockets. Beginning in 1896, he carried out systematic work on the theory of the motion of reaction-propulsion devices; he proposed a number of designs for long-range and interplanetary rockets. After the October Revolution of 1917, Tsiolkovskii made fruitful contributions to the formulation of a theory of jet-airplane flight. He developed a design for a gas-turbine engine. In 1927 he published his theory and scheme for a train carried on an air cushion.

Tsiolkovskii’s first published work on dirigibles was “A Controlled Metal Dirigible” (1892), which laid the scientific and technical foundations for the design of a dirigible with a metal hull (seeAEROSTATION). Although of considerable merit, his dirigible project did not meet with an enthusiastic response, and he was refused a subsidy for construction of the model. His appeal to the General Staff of the Russian Army was also unsuccessful.

In 1892, Tsiolkovskii moved to Kaluga, where he taught physics and mathematics at the Gymnasium and the eparchial school. In Kaluga he turned his attention to a new and little studied field: the design of heavier-than-air aircraft.

Tsiolkovskii conceived the idea of an airplane with a metal frame. In the article “The Aeroplane, or a Flying Birdlike Machine (Aircraft)” (1894), he presented a description and drawings of a monoplane that, in its appearance and aerodynamic configuration, anticipated the designs of aircraft that appeared 15 to 18 years later. The wings of his airplane had a thick profile and a rounded leading edge, and the fuselage had a streamlined shape.

In 1897, Tsiolkovskii built the first open-jet wind tunnel in Russia. He developed methods of experimentation with wind tunnels. A grant from the Academy of Sciences permitted him in 1900 to conduct wind-tunnel tests of simple models and to determine the drag coefficient of such bodies as a sphere, a flat plate, a cylinder, and a cone.

Tsiolkovskii’s work on the airplane, like his work on the dirigible, was not recognized by official Russian science. He did not receive financial assistance or even moral support for further research. Many years later, in the Soviet period, he worked out a theory of jet flight in the stratosphere and suggested designs for hypersonic aircraft. His work on reaching the stratosphere appeared in 1932.

Tsiolkovskii obtained important results in the theory of the motion of rockets. As early as 1883 he wrote on the use of rockets in space, and in 1896 he formulated a mathematically rigorous theory of the motion of rockets. Not until 1903 was he able to publish part of his article “Investigation of Interplanetary Space by Means of Rocket Devices,” in which he demonstrated the feasibility of the use of rockets in interplanetary travel. In this and subsequent articles (1911, 1914) he set forth the principles of rocket theory and the liquid-propellant rocket engine.

An examination of the practical problem of rectilinear rocket motion led Tsiolkovskii to the solution of new problems in the mechanics of bodies of variable mass. He provided the first solution of the problem of the landing of a spacecraft on a planet that lacks an atmosphere. Between 1926 and 1929, Tsiolkovskii developed the theory of multistage rockets. He was the first to derive the rocket equation, and he achieved the first solution of the problem of the motion of a rocket in a nonuniform gravitational field. He gave an approximate treatment of the influence of an atmosphere on the flight of a rocket and calculated the amount of propellant needed to overcome the resistance of the earth’s atmosphere.

Tsiolkovskii was the father of the theory of interplanetary travel. His research provided the first demonstration of the possibility of achieving the high velocities required for interplanetary flight. He was the first to study the problem of the rocket as an artificial earth satellite. He suggested the construction of space stations that would orbit the earth; these artificial settlements, which would use solar power, would be intermediate bases for interplanetary travel. Tsiolkovskii also examined the medical and biological problems involved in long space flights. In a series of works he discussed such matters as the possible economic applications of artificial earth satellites.

Tsiolkovskii introduced many ideas that later found application in rocket building. He suggested the use of graphite jet vanes to control the flight of a rocket and to alter the path of its center of mass. He proposed the use of propellant components to cool the outer envelope of a liquid-propellant spacecraft during its entry into the earth’s atmosphere and to cool the walls of the combustion chamber and nozzle of the engine. To reduce the mass of the propulsion system, he set forth the notion of a pump feed system for the propellant components. His other contributions include the calculation of optimal trajectories for the descent of a spacecraft on returning from space. Tsiolkovskii investigated a large number of different oxidizers and fuels for liquid-propellant rocket engines. He recommended the use, for example, of liquid oxygen with hydrogen or of oxygen with hydrocarbons.

The first ideologist and theorist of the conquest of outer space by man, Tsiolkovskii believed the ultimate goal of this endeavor to be the complete restructuring of the biochemical nature of the thinking beings given birth to by the earth. In this connection he suggested new ways in which mankind might be organized; his conceptions interweave ideas drawn from social utopias of various historical periods. He produced studies in such other fields of knowledge as linguistics and biology and wrote many science fiction works.

The advent of Soviet power brought a marked change in the conditions in which Tsiolkovskii lived and worked. He was granted a personal pension and was given the opportunity to continue his fruitful research. His works made an enormous contribution to the development of rocketry and astronautics in the USSR and other countries.

In 1932, Tsiolkovskii was awarded the Order of the Red Banner of Labor for “singular service in the area of inventions bearing on the economic might and the defense of the USSR.” In commemoration of the 100th anniversary of his birth, the Academy of Sciences of the USSR instituted in 1954 the K. E. Tsiolkovskii Gold Medal for Distinguished Work in the Field of Interplanetary Travel. Monuments to the scientist have been built in Kaluga and Moscow, and a memorial house-museum has been established in Kaluga. Tsiolkovskii’s name has been given to the State Museum of the History of Cosmonautics in Kaluga, the Kaluga Pedagogical Institute, and the Moscow Institute of Aviation Technology, and a lunar crater has been named in his honor.


Sobr. soch., vols. 1–4. Moscow, 1951–64.
Izbr. trudy, books 1–2. Leningrad, 1934.
Trudy po raketnoi tekhnike. Moscow, 1947.
In Pionery raketnoi lekhniki: Kibal’chich, Tsiolkovskii, Tsander, Kondratiuk: hbr. trudy. Moscow, 1964.


Iur’ev, B. N. “Zhizn’ i deiatel’nost’ K. E. Tsiolkovskogo.” In Trudy po istorii tekhniki, fase. 1. Moscow, 1952.
Kosmodem’ianskii, A. A. “K. E. Tsiolkovskii—osnovopolozhnik sovremennoi raketodinamiki.” In Trudy po istorii tekhniki, fase. 1. Moscow, 1952.
Kosmodem’ianskii, A. A. “Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovskii.” In Liudi russkoi nauki, vol. 2. Foreword and introductory article by Academician S. I. Vavilov. Moscow-Leningrad, 1948. (Contains a list of works by and about Tsiolkovskii.)
Kosmodem’ianskii, A. A. Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovskii. Moscow, 1976.
Vperedi svoego veka. Moscow, 1970.
Arlazorov, M. S. Tsiolkovskii. Tula, 1977.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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