Red Cosmos: K.E. Tsiolkovskii, Grandfather of Soviet Rocketry

Red Cosmos: K.E. Tsiolkovskii, Grandfather of Soviet Rocketry

Red Cosmos: K.E. Tsiolkovskii, Grandfather of Soviet Rocketry

Red Cosmos: K.E. Tsiolkovskii, Grandfather of Soviet Rocketry


Long before the space race captured the world's attention, K. E. Tsiolkovskii first conceived of multi-stage rockets that would later be adapted as the basis of both the U.S. and Soviet rocket programs.

Often called the grandfather of Russian rocketry, this provincial scientist was even sanctioned by Stalin to give a speech from Red Square on May Day 1935, lauding the Soviet technological future while also dreaming and expounding on his own visions of conquering the cosmos. Later, the Khrushchev regime used him as a "poster boy" for Soviet excellence during its Cold War competition with the United States. Ironically, some revisionists have since pointed to such blatant promotion by the Communist Party in an attempt to downplay Tsiolkovskii's scientific contributions.

James T. Andrews explores the complexities of this man to show that Tsiolkovskii was much more than either a rocket inventor or a propaganda tool. He was a science popularizer, novelist, technical inventor, and visionary, whose science fiction writings included futuristic drawings of space stations long before they appeared on any engineer's drawing board.

Mining a myriad of Russian archives, Andrews produces not only a biographical account but also a study of Soviet technological propaganda, local science education, public culture in the 1920s and 1930s, and the cultural ramifications of space flight.


In 1935, in Stalin’s times, a young journalist working for the Young Communist Youth League’s Newspaper (Komsomolskaia Pravda), Evgeny Riabchikov, made a pilgrimage to Kaluga in provincial Russia to interview the grandfather of Russian cosmonautics, K. E. Tsiolkovskii. At that time, Tsiolkovskii was old and sickly, and would pass away in September of that same year. Riabchikov, working on stories about Soviet aeronautics and space design, was interested in interviewing Tsiolkovskii and finding out his thoughts on new developments at the Moscow and Leningrad centers of design research. After interviewing Tsiolkovskii, Riabchikov was convinced that Tsiolkovskii’s childhood bout with scarlet fever motivated him to become an overachiever and establish himself as a self-taught physicist and scientist with a vision for the future. Riabchikov wrote about his encounter with Tsiolkovskii in his famous book on Soviet space flight, entitled Russfeie u kosmose (Russians in Space), and in a series of newspaper articles he wrote in the 1930s on the topic.

Sixty-five years later, in the summer of 2000,1 began a series of similar pilgrimages to Kaluga. However, I was in search of Tsiolkovskii’s legacy and therefore came to this provincial town for different reasons. I had already been working extensively in the archives at the Russian Academy of Sciences, where Tsiolkovskii’s papers had been organized since he donated his materials to the Soviet Communist Party on his death in 1935. One of his daughters had been a member of the Socialist Revolutionary Party during the 1917 revolutionary era. She had survived the cataclysmic events, and she later organized his papers after his death in order to have them transferred first to the Communist Party, and then eventually to the Russian Academy of Sciences. Her father had initially bequeathed all his papers to the Communist Party in gratitude of its financial aid and support of his work and vision.

I came to Kaluga with much experience with central and provincial archives in Russia from my previous book projects. Furthermore, I came to revisit the Tsiolkovskii story in a much broader . . .

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