Tsiolkovsky Proposes Using Liquid Oxygen for Space Travel

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky determined by mathematical calculation that the use of liquid propellants was necessary to launch rockets into space.

Summary of Event

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky is one of the three men most often credited with the formulation of rocket theory, along with Robert H. Goddard, Goddard, Robert H. an American, and Hermann Oberth, Oberth, Hermann a German. Tsiolkovsky and Goddard both suffered severe diseases in childhood, both became teachers, and both maintained a total dedication to spaceflight. As a young child, Tsiolkovsky was known by the nickname “Bird” for his characteristic flitting movements and lightheartedness. When he was ten years old, however, he contracted scarlet fever, which left him deaf. As a result, he developed a severely limited view of life and buried himself in books. Rocketry
Liquid oxygen
Space science
[kw]Tsiolkovsky Proposes Using Liquid Oxygen for Space Travel (1903)
[kw]Liquid Oxygen for Space Travel, Tsiolkovsky Proposes Using (1903)
[kw]Oxygen for Space Travel, Tsiolkovsky Proposes Using Liquid (1903)
[kw]Space Travel, Tsiolkovsky Proposes Using Liquid Oxygen for (1903)
Liquid oxygen
Space science
[g]Russia;1903: Tsiolkovsky Proposes Using Liquid Oxygen for Space Travel[00630]
[c]Science and technology;1903: Tsiolkovsky Proposes Using Liquid Oxygen for Space Travel[00630]
[c]Space and aviation;1903: Tsiolkovsky Proposes Using Liquid Oxygen for Space Travel[00630]
Tsiolkovsky, Konstantin

Tsiolkovsky credited to his deafness his dedication to rocket theory formulation and, therefore, his success in that endeavor. His isolation from other people meant that he never participated in most of the social aspects of life. Tsiolkovsky discovered that because of limitations in the literature, it was easier to prove his theories physically than to perform research with the available resources. The young scholar was sent to Moscow to study mathematics and physics; he then added astronomy to his areas of research. Tsiolkovsky believed that, through spaceflight, humans could claim the heavens.

It was partially because he lacked funds for materials for experimentation that the young scientist proved his theories mathematically, recording his thinking in meticulously kept journals. When he did perform experiments, he financed them by cutting back on his food allowance, and after a time this caused him to weaken and become ill. Before he was sent home to recuperate, however, he had an experience that allowed him to envision his theory of spaceflight. He was sitting in a city park, watching a crowd of teenagers hopping off a hay wagon. As each youngster jumped off, the wagon lurched forward slightly. It was at that moment that Isaac Newton’s law of action and reaction came to life for Tsiolkovsky, and he realized what would be needed to propel a rocket into space.

In 1879, Tsiolkovsky passed a test for certification as a teacher without ever having attended school himself. As his deafness was a problem, most of his teaching consisted of lectures. When on a rare occasion he asked a question of one of his students, the pupil would have to stand at his side and shout a response into his left ear. Tsiolkovsky’s dedication extended to his expending his meager salary on experimental materials for his classes. His theorizing never ceased. He rose early to study, teach classes, and perform familial duties, and then he experimented in the evenings.

Members of the Society for Physics and Chemistry in St. Petersburg heard of Tsiolkovsky through one of his papers, but unfortunately they became enraged because he seemingly had presumed to write a paper on a subject already proven and had called his work original. They later realized, however, that his work was indeed original—he apparently had not known that the theory he set out to prove had already been proven. He was saved by the fact that he had proved the theory using an approach that was entirely different from the original approach. In other words, he had reinvented a concept because of his nonsystematic self-teaching, which was not always well balanced and left gaps in his knowledge. Dmitry Ivanovich Mendeleyev was impressed with Tsiolkovsky and led the drive to gain unanimous approval among the members for the young man’s acceptance into the elite scientific society.

In 1885, Tsiolkovsky dedicated himself to aviation, and for two years he spent every moment theorizing about and creating an all-metal piloted balloon. He presented his first public lecture on this project, titled “The Theory of the Aerostat,” at the Polytechnical Museum in Moscow in 1887. Following his lectures and heavy two-year workload, he contracted a serious illness and lost his voice for a year. He also lost his library and models when his house burned. The only work saved was the lecture he had presented in Moscow. In 1892, Tsiolkovsky moved to Kaluga, where he took up teaching posts at a high school and at a school for the daughters of clergy. This was an exciting move for him, as Kaluga was a busy industrial city with communications with the outside world. For the first time since his illness, be regained his earlier vigor, and his scientific research escalated. In 1894 he presented “Aeroplan ili ptitsepodobnaya (aviatsionnaya) letatelnaya mashina” (the airplane or a birdlike flying machine), in which he discussed his design for a monoplane, a project that did not appear elsewhere for another twenty years. He also constructed the first wind tunnel in Russia in order to study aerodynamic principles of flight. In 1898 he presented “Issledovanie mirovykh prostranstv reaktivnymi priborami” (exploration of space with reactive devices). Unfortunately, this work was not published until 1903, partially because of its highly technical nature. There was little reaction, although Goddard’s paper “A Method of Reaching Extreme Altitudes,” published in the same period of time, created a furor.

Between 1903 and 1933, ideas on the fundamentals of space travel flowed from Tsiolkovsky. His was a unique genius in that he could recognize the truth of an idea without requiring experimental testing. Whereas Goddard translated his ideas into tangible products, Tsiolkovsky usually had only his notebooks for proof of his endless creativity. Throughout his years of study and research, he repeatedly returned to the idea of an aerostat, a metal-skinned balloon.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky with a model of an early rocket.

(Library of Congress)

Tsiolkovsky’s written works are numerous; however, in “Issledovanie mirovykh prostranstv reaktivnymi priborami” he proposed several unique advanced ideas. One of the most important theories included in this work is that only reaction devices would function both within the atmosphere and in space. He also proposed that the black-powder fuels in use at the time would not be sufficient to carry a rocket into space. He went on to suggest the use of the best liquid propellants.

Tsiolkovsky decided that hydrocarbons would be the best explosives, citing problems with hydrogen and the limitations of oxygen. Hydrogen would be difficult to store, because it evaporates quickly. It also absorbs energy when going to the gaseous state, when, at that point, energy is needed. Oxygen would be useful in that it could be used as a coolant in addition to providing air for pilots. It would be necessary in upper-atmospheric flight; it is also extremely combustible, giving off heat, not absorbing it like hydrogen. He discarded the notion of using high-pressure gases, because of the need for heavy, sealed containers that would increase the launch weight. He concluded that, although hydrocarbons would produce 20 percent less thrust, their volatility and lower container weight requirements made them the best fuel. He went on to suggest the use of superheated water for initial tests, cutting costs of launches, and predicted a maximum range of 60 kilometers (37.3 miles).

Tsiolkovsky described the parameters of liquid-fuel rocket components, including the “explosion tube,” which, he suggested, should be a cone. In a cone with at least a one-degree angle, the combustion pressure would be exerted on the entire inner surface. The cone should be as long as possible, and the length could be assisted with bends in the structure when needed. Tsiolkovsky also noted the need to pump explosives into the combustion chamber to overcome the pressure of explosion. The fuel pump would actually require limited power and could be an airplane-type engine. He also detailed the control system, including three rudders that would function on takeoff, in space, and for a gliding reentry: horizontal rudder, direction rudder, and lateral stability rudder. Their sizes would correspond to the sizes of airplane rudders. In short, Tsiolkovsky described, in 1903, the fundamental systems that were used many years later for early rocket spaceflight.


Tsiolkovsky’s theories of spaceflight were the basis for actual early flight. Unfortunately, the scientific community did not recognize his work, even after the initial publication of his 1903 paper on liquid-fuel rockets and their design. It was not until 1924, when Oberth republished his work, in both German and Russian, that Tsiolkovsky was termed “the father of space travel.” It was his persistence that made the world examine the possibilities of spaceflight. This same kind of persistence has characterized all human efforts to conquer space.

Because of the remarkable accuracy of Tsiolkovsky’s theories on liquid-fuel rocketry and the success of the technology developed based on his theories, his more far-reaching, somewhat fantastical ideas have not been entirely dismissed. For example, his papers speculating about “unknown intelligent forces” have influenced some modern scientists to pursue the likelihood that there may be intelligent extraterrestrial life in the universe.

Tsiolkovsky also predicted the possibility of the establishment of space stations that would serve as interplanetary way stations, servicing rockets en route between planets. He suggested that these could be constructed in space from prefabricated sections carried aloft by large rocket-powered spacecraft. The visionary scientist described his impression of weightlessness, which was remarkably accurate. He surmised that plants grown on a space station, in support of planetary cities and colonies, would grow quickly because of lack of gravity. Solar hothouses on a space station would be closer to the Sun and could grow food and regenerate air for colonization.

Liquid-fuel rocket theory made human spaceflight possible. The reduction of mass in relation to velocity made escape from the earth’s gravity a reality. Using liquid as coolant and then as fuel lowered the lift-off weight as well. Both Tsiolkovsky’s “rocket train” and “rocket squadron” multistage configurations, using liquid fuel, made possible the immense thrust necessary to launch a manned spaceflight. From Tsiolkovsky’s observation of Soviet teenagers at play and his subsequent vision of reaction motion, locomotion of spacecraft within the vacuum of space is now a reality. The gliding reentry that Tsiolkovsky envisioned has been used routinely for the safe return of the American space shuttle.

The memorial built in Tsiolkovsky’s honor following his death quotes his belief that “mankind will not remain bound to the earth.” Just three years before his death, Tsiolkovsky finally won renown as a Soviet national hero. His determination that humans should not remain earthbound and his persistence in proving the possibilities of space travel strongly influenced modern space technology, as evidenced by the U.S. government’s space shuttle program and by the global cooperation brought to bear in the development of the International Space Station. In fact, the full effects of his remarkable insight and genius have not yet come to fruition, as humankind continues to explore his visions. Rocketry
Liquid oxygen
Space science

Further Reading

  • Finney, B., V. Lytkin, and L. Finney. “Tsiolkovsky and Extraterrestrial Intelligence.” Acta Astronautica 46 (June, 2000): 745-749. Discusses Tsiolkovsky’s belief that life exists throughout the cosmos and that humans are surrounded by intelligent extraterrestrial species.
  • Gruntman, Mike. Blazing the Trail: The Early History of Spacecraft and Rocketry. Reston, Va.: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, 2004. Relates the events that paved the way for human beings to begin exploring space. Describes the early work in rocketry science of Tsiolkovsky and others.
  • Ley, Willy. Rockets, Missiles, and Space Travel. New York: Viking Press, 1951. The author is known as probably the most prolific writer of space history. This college-level text is very readable, yet it is dense with information. Details the history of rocketry from the early conceptions. Contains technical tables.
  • Ordway, Frederick J., III, and Mitchell R. Sharpe. The Rocket Team. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1979. This is a detailed history of the development of the V-2 rocket, with developmental references to Tsiolkovsky. College-level reading, with fascinating black-and-white photographs. An excellent resource for readers interested in the history of rocket development.
  • Thomas, Shirley. Men of Space. Vol. 1. Philadelphia: Chilton, 1960. These detailed biographies of selected men shed light on their extraordinary work. Those featured in this collection were chosen for inclusion by their colleagues based on their contributions to space exploration. Some are well known, whereas others are acknowledged more by the scientific community than by the general public.
  • Tsiolkovsky, K. E. Works on Rocket Technology. Washington, D.C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 1965. This is a NASA technical translation of a compilation of Tsiolkovsky’s work. The information is easy to follow; written for the college level.
  • Winter, Frank H. The First Golden Age of Rocketry. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1990. This is a history of the Congreve rocket and practical developments in the field of rocketry. This is another side of the story of rocketry, necessary for a complete understanding of the topic. Refers to Tsiolkovsky, in passing, as a dreamer.

Launching of the First Liquid-Fueled Rocket