By the end of the 19th century, soldiers, sailors, practical and not so practical inventors had developed a stake in rocketry. Skillful theorists, like Konstantian Tsiolkovsky in Russia, were examining the fundamental scientific theories behind rocketry. They were beginning to consider the possibility of space travel.
Three persons were particularly significant in the transition from the small rockets of the 19th century to the colossi of the space age: Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky in Russia, Robert H. Goddard in the United States, and Hermann Oberth in Germany. It is generally agreed that priority goes to Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935), who apparently in his teens became interested in the possibility of spaceflight.
In 1895, the Russian scientist and school teacher looked at the Eiffel Tower in Paris and thought about such a tower. He wanted to put a “celestial castle” at the end of a spindle shaped cable, with the “castle” orbiting the earth in a geosynchronous orbit (i.e. the castle would remain over the same spot on the earth). The tower would be built from the ground to an altitude of 35,800 kilometers. It would be similar to the fabled beanstalk in the children’s story “Jack and the Beanstalk,” except that on Tsiolkovsky’s tower an elevator would ride up the cable to the “castle”.
One “spinoff” use of Tsiolkovsky’s tower would be the ability to launch objects into orbit without a rocket. Since the elevator would attain orbit velocity as it rode up the cable, an object released at the tower’s top would also have the orbital velocity necessary to remain in geosynchronous orbit. Building from the ground up, however, proved an impossible task. It took until 1960 for another Russian scientist, Y.N. Artsutanov, to propose another scheme for building a space tower.
Tsiolkovsky wrote of spaceflight in science fiction, but went further. Self-taught in mathematics, astronomy, and physics, he proceeded to develop the basic theory of rocket propulsion, and in 1898 submitted his now famous article “The Investigation of Outer Space by Means of Reaction Apparatus,” to the editors of Science Survey. The article, however, was not published until 1903. The report suggested the use of liquid propellants for rockets in order to achieve greater range. Tsiolkovsky stated that the speed and range of a rocket were limited by the exhaust velocity of escaping gases.
For the next years Tsiolkovsky continued to write both technical papers and science fiction, much of what he had to say being devoted to a favorite theme of flight into deep space about which he wrote in 1911:
To place one’s feet on the soil of asteroids, to lift a stone from the moon with your hand, to construct moving stations in ether space, to organize inhabited rings around Earth, moon and sun, to observe Mars at the distance of several tens of miles, to descend to its satellites or even to its own surface-what could be more insane! However, only at such a time when reactive devices are applied, will a great new era begin in astronomy: the era of more intensive study of the of heavens.
In 1926 Tsiolkovsky suggested the use of artificial earth satellites, including manned platforms, as way stations for interplanetary flight, and in 1929 he put forth an idea for a multistage rocket which he described as a rocket train.
Like the appearance of his first article on rocket principles, Tsiolkovsky’s influence in Russia was delayed. As G. A. Tokaty, aerodynamicist and chief rocket scientist of the Soviet Government in Germany ( 1946-1947), commented:
Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935), the man of “great efforts and little rewards,”….considered to be the “father” of present Soviet achievements in rocket technology. He gave Russia a spaceship project which was, for 1903, absolutely unique. But being what he was-a mere teacher in a remote provincial school, a technologist rather than a theoretician-his project did not attract the attention in deserved.
Apparently it took the publication in Germany, in 1923 of “Die Rakete zu den Planetenrdumen” by the Hungarian-born Hermann Oberth to goad the Russians into action. Following the appearance of Oberth’s work, in which the author elaborated in great detail the application of rocket propulsion to spaceflight, Tsiolkovsky’s earlier works were sought out and avidly studied. Interest in rocket propulsion increased noticeably in the Soviet Union, which took special pains to assert Russian claims to priority by issuing in 1924 German translations of Tsiolkovsky’s writings. That same year Friedrikh A. Tsander, Tsiolkovsky, and Felix E. Dzherzhinsky started the Society for Studying Interplanetary Communications, a major aspect of which concerned interplanetary travel.