Konstantin Tsiolkovsky Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Russian scientist who is considered the founding father of rocket theory.

Born in 1857 in the remote village of Izhevskoye, Russia, Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky would become the founding father of modern rocketry. Growing up in a modest family with a Polish father and Russian mother, he was an avid reader and had an early interest in mathematics and science. As young child, he contracted scarlet fever, which resulted in his near deafness. When he was sixteen, he was sent by his father 600 miles away to Moscow, where he combined university studies with a self-taught education. He later moved to Kaluga to become a teacher and remained there until his death in 1935.

Tsiolkovsky first became interested in both aeronautics and astronautics, or cosmonautics as it is known in Russia, in Moscow, but he did not follow up on his interests until he accepted a teaching post in Borovsk. At this time, he began a life-long investigation of the theory of gases and reactive motion. In 1897, he built the first Russian wind tunnel in Kaluga to examine the aerodynamic forces on dirigibles, and he completed extensive wind-tunnel tests on various dirigible and aircraft designs. His aviation work did not meet with much scientific interest, however, and it was only after he began publishing his thoughts on space travel in the 1890’s that he seriously turned his attention to rocketry.

Tsiolkovsky developed his first rocket design in 1903. It was a liquid-fueled design using one liquid for fuel and another as the oxygenator. His favored propellant mixture, combining liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen, is still used today on the space shuttle. Tsiolkovsky’s design included several advanced concepts, such as regenerative cooling, whereby the fuel was ducted around the hot exhaust nozzle prior to combustion to both cool the nozzle and preheat the fuel, and directional control, using exhaust guide vanes and gyroscopes.

Tsiolkovsky’s later work included theoretical calculations of launch trajectories, escape velocities, travel times to planetary bodies, multistage rockets, and atomic- and solar-powered satellites. This work included the derivation of the rocket equation, in which Tsiolkovsky showed that rocket velocity was a function of exhaust velocity and change in rocket mass due to expended fuel. He designed extensive systems for crewed spaceflight, including living quarters and greenhouses for extended trips. He also published many science fiction stories focusing on space travel. Although he continued to develop theories for rocket design and spaceflight throughout his lifetime, he never actually built a rocket himself.

Although Tsiolkovsky was acknowledged by the Soviet Union after his death as the father of cosmonautics, his theories were not widely publicized and his contributions not well known, particularly because Hermann Oberth and Robert H. Goddard had arrived at similar derivations independently in Germany and the United States, respectively. However, for his many theories on rocket design and his realistic but creative concepts of spaceflight, Tsiolkovsky is widely attributed as the first of the three founding fathers of modern rocketry.

  • McDougall, Walter A. The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1985. An exhaustive political history of the space race, beginning with Tsiolkovsky.
  • Tsiolkovsky, Konstatin. Science Fiction of Konstatin Tsiolkovsky. Edited by Adam Starchild. Portland, Oreg.: International Specialized Book Services, 2000. A collection of Tsiolkovsky’s science fiction stories.
  • Winter, Frank H. Rockets into Space. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990. A concise and well-written history of spaceflight with many technical descriptions for the nontechnical reader.


Astronauts and cosmonauts

Crewed spaceflight

Robert H. Goddard

Hermann Oberth

Rocket propulsion


Russian space program



Wind tunnels

Categories: History