Although growing up in rural Russian Empire and suffering partial deafness due to scarlet fever at age ten, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky would become one of the most internationally known figures of engineering as father of aerodynamics and rocketry. His handicap kept him out of traditional classrooms, so young Tsiolkovksy taught himself through reading and solving mathematics. As a teenager, he moved to Moscow to read in the great library. There he read the science fiction works of Frenchman Jules Verne such as From the Earth to the Moon that would fascinate him with space travel for a lifetime.
Tsiolkovsky returned to the countryside at 19, marrying and earning his teaching certificate, continuing his research as a hobby outside of class. In 1881, he published his “Theory of Gases,” which correctly deduced principal laws of matter that, unbeknownst to Tsiolkovsky, had already been determined decades before. Tsiolkovsky finally earned a position with the Russian Physcio-Chemical Society discussing “The Mechanics of the Animal Organism.” Then he turned his attention to the problem of flight.
The bulk of Tsiolkovsky’s work focused on metal-clad airships, which were much sturdier than blimps but suffered from their great weight. Working in his free time with his own means, Tsiolkovsky designed his own craft and tested his models in Russia’s first experimentally-accessible wind tunnel, which he himself constructed. Although he soon began to turn his attention to rigid, heavier-than-air aircraft, it was his wind tunnel that caught the attention of German Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin.
By 1900, Zeppelin found acclaim with the successful launch of the LZ1 zeppelin, but his success also brought his company into the midst of legal allegations of patent infringement. Reviewing the countless scientific journals and intellectual property documents, Zeppelin came across Tsiolkovsky’s old works and immediately sought him out as a consultant for streamlining his vessels. After much convincing and signed documents of financial support, Tsiolkovsky moved to Germany and began his research on an industrial scale.
Through the years, Zeppelin would often complain that Tsiolkovsky went “off topic” in his research, which was intended to be improvements for the colossal lighter-than-air behemoths. However, Tsiolkovsky showed again and again that the ungainliness and drag of the huge craft would hold them back while airplanes continued to surge forward. The two modes of thought were gradually brought together in Tsiolkovsky’s designs of an aerodynamically faired, fast-moving hybrid craft, which crossed the Atlantic in a fraction of the time an ocean liner could. Both Tsiolkovsky and Zeppelin greatly agreed on the importance of airboats, although their development of hovercraft would be eclipsed by the conquest of the skies.
Tsiolkovsky’s 1914 display of model craft at the Werkbund Exhibition in Cologne was met with international nods until the fair was closed early due to the declaration of World War I. Although disappointed, Tsiolkovsky soon had his attention diverted again when the German military showed interest in rocketry, yet another of Tsiolkovsky’s background hobbies. By the time of the Battle of Verdun in 1916, rockets were being launched from artillery sites well behind the German lines into the streets of Paris. Although ecstatic about the triumphs in range and height, Tsiolkovsky showed visible depression at the news of destruction wrought by his rockets.
Upon the death of Ferdinand von Zeppelin in 1917, Tsiolkovsky turned in his resignation and moved to America for an extended visit to his longtime pen pal, Robert Goddard. Goddard carried out his own rocket work in the New Mexico desert with a Smithsonian grant and sponsorship from the Army Signal Corps, but Tsiolkovsky pushed him to seek industrial applications. Goddard was suspicious about losing control of his work, but Tsiolkovsky’s encouragement and imagination for applied science proved to be beneficial as money thinned out with the closing of World War I.
While Germany was banned from rocket production with the Treaty of Versailles, the 1920s became the Rocket Age for the United States. Rocket-mail became a method for rapid delivery of post, outpacing even propeller airplanes that handled more delicate packages. Tsiolkovsky began blending his ideas to create manned rocketcraft that used gas turbine engines. Most notable, of course, was his aspiration for human spaceflight, which led to Charles Lindberg’s famous jaunt beyond the atmosphere in 1927.
Tsiolkovsky died in 1935 after an emergency surgery for stomach cancer after spending his final years working on anti-missile missiles. Although these designs were never successfully tested in his lifetime, his search-and-destroy methods of navigation laid groundwork for modern computing. Tsiolkovsky feared rocket-mail delivered across the Atlantic could easily be turned to intercontinental ballistics, a fear realized as World War II erupted.
In reality, Tsiolkovsky was largely unknown outside of the Soviet Union, where he was awarded scientific recognition late in life. During his lifetime, he was considered a weird loner, but his work inspired generations of rocket scientists like Wernher von Braun and the many serving in the Soviet space program.