Konstantin Tsiolkovsky

Text by Divan Muller
Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky was born on 17 September 1857, in what was then the Russian Empire. He did not have an easy childhood. At the age of ten, he contracted scarlet fever and subsequently became hard of hearing. As a result, he was unable to attend school. Three years later, his mother died. Young Tsiolkovsky studied at home and almost constantly read books, developing an interest in mathematics and science. He later studied these subjects in Moscow and became a school teacher. In his spare time, he studied aeronautics and cosmonautics. In the mid-1890s, he used his personal funds to build the first wind tunnel in Russia, using it to test various aircraft and airship concepts. After studying the effects of air friction, he was given financial aid by the Academy of Sciences, which he used to construct a larger wind tunnel. At the same time, he began work on solving theoretical problems associated with space travel. In 1897, he derived an equation which he called the ‘formula for aviation’. It described the relationship between a rocket’s velocity, its mass and the exhaust velocity of its engine. In 1903, about six months before the first flight of the Wright brothers, he published an article titled, ‘Exploration of outer space by means of rocket devices.’ The article revealed what is now known as the ‘Tsiolkovsky rocket equation.’ Even today, this equation is vitally important in space travel and exploration, as well as some spheres of aviation. It contains all the essential aspects of rocket physics in a brief formula. It must be noted that in other parts of the world, most notably Britain, other scientists had also independently created similar equations, but Tsiolkovsky was the first to use the equation to calculate whether rockets could reach the necessary speeds to achieve space travel. Tsiolkovsky published a second part of the article in 1911, in which he addressed specific problems which had to be overcome to make space travel possible. In the 1920s, he was the first to provide a scientific description of the physics involved in ground effect and hovercraft. Then, in 1929, he published a book called ‘Space Rocket Trains,’ in which he became the first person to describe multi-stage rockets. Meanwhile, Tsiolkovsky continued working as a high school mathematics teacher. He died on 19 September 1935, at the age of 78. Today, he is known as one of the fathers of rocketry. One of the most prominent features of the far side of the moon, a massive impact crater, has been named the ‘Tsiolkovsky’ in his honour.