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Konstantin Tsiolkovskiy and other Russian Space Pioneers

By John Uri

Manager, History Office

NASA Johnson Space Center



Much is widely known about American rocket pioneer Robert Goddard and the influence and leadership of former German rocket scientist Werner von Braun on the early development of the US space program.   But how much do you know about the early pioneers of Russian cosmonautics?  Russian pioneers like Tsiolkovskiy and Korolyov are not exactly household names in the US, yet their histories illuminate how the Space Age developed, in particular how the early years of the Space Race between the United States and Soviet Union evolved.  From theoretical approaches to space flight to testing of early rockets to development of missiles during the Cold War, to launching the world’s first artificial satellite and putting the first human into space, these are some of the more fascinating and significant developments of the 20th Century.

The father of Russian cosmonautics

Born September 17, 1857, in Izhevskoye, in the Russian Empire, Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovskiy was not who you would predict to become the father of Russian cosmonautics.  This self-taught school teacher spent most of his life living in a log cabin in Kaluga, 120 miles from Moscow, where his fascination with physics and mathematics led him to theorize about the possibility of space travel and conduct experiments in aerodynamics.  He was influenced by the science fiction writings of French novelist Jules Verne.

Writing more than 400 works, 90 of them on space travel, Tsolikovskiy’s most important work, published in 1903, was Exploration of Outer Space by Means of Rocket Devices (Исследование мировых пространств реактивными приборами), in which he theoretically proved for the first time that a rocket could fly in space.  In this publication and its sequels (1911 and 1914, just prior to the start of World War I), he developed ideas for missiles and considered the use of liquid rocket engines and multi-stage rockets to achieve space flight.  His idea to use liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen predates the first flight of such a rocket engine by more than 60 years.  The outward appearance of Tsiolkovskiy's spacecraft design was a basis for modern spaceship design.  While virtually unknown at the time in the United States, Tsiolkovskiy influenced later rocket scientists throughout Europe, like Wehrner von Braun and Hermann Oberth in Germany, as well as future Russian scientists.  A famous quote, somewhat garbled from the original Russian, “The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle forever,” is attributed to Tsiolkovskiy, implying humanity’s ultimate destiny to travel in space.  He died in Kaluga on September 19, 1935, before many of his theories were put into practice.  He is honored in Russia with a space museum in his home town, and on the far side of the Moon the most prominent crater is named after him.

The Chief Designer

For many years, he was known to the outside world as simply The Chief Designer.  Cloaked in secrecy to prevent Western agents from learning his true identity and possibly doing him harm, Sergey Pavlovich Korolyov labored in obscurity, the main driving force behind Russia’s early successes in the Space Race with the United States.  Born January 12, 1907, in the town of Zhytomyr in the Russian Empire in what is now Ukraine, Korolyov’s early career was as an aircraft designer.  Inspired by reading Tsiolkovskiy’s works, he founded an organization for the study of liquid fueled rocketry which through its successes began receiving official government support.  In 1938, he was arrested during one of Joseph Stalin’s purges on essentially trumped up charges, spending six years in various Gulags.

After being rehabilitated in 1944, he was instrumental in developing Russia’s first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) by first building on captured German missiles much like the Americans did, and eventually developing a fully Russian-designed rocket at the design bureau that he headed.  First flown successfully in August 1957 as an ICBM, within two months it placed Sputnik, the world’s first artificial satellite, into orbit on October 4, 1957, heralding the Space Age and realizing Korolyov’s own dream of conquering space.

Capitalizing on the propaganda value of Sputnik’s success, the Soviet government increasingly put pressure on Korolyov and his design bureau for more spectacular space firsts.  The first dog in orbit flew just a month after Sputnik, followed by robotic probes to the Moon (1959), the first man in space (1961), the first woman (1963), the first multicrew flight (1964), the first spacewalk (1965), and the first robotic soft landing on the Moon (1966), all in effort to upstage the Americans.  Robotic missions to Venus and Mars were also attempted but none were successful.  In 1964, the Soviet government decided, somewhat belatedly, to compete with the Americans in an effort to land a man on the Moon, requiring among other technologies the development of a massive rocket called the N-1.  The pressures to complete all these tasks, along with long-term effects from his imprisonment, caused his health to deteriorate.

Only after his death from a botched operation on January 14, 1966, did Soviet authorities publicly recognize Korolyov and his achievements.  His ashes were interred in the Kremlin wall during a public ceremony.  To this day every crew ritually visits this site before they head into space.  His old design bureau, which over the years went by a succession of designations, now bears his name, and the town outside of Moscow where it is located was renamed after him in 1996.  Craters on the lunar far side and on Mars are named in his honor.

Korolyov’s successors

The Russian space program acutely felt the loss of Korolyov’s vision and leadership after his death.  He was succeeded by his deputy, Vasiliy Mishin, who was a competent engineer but lacked the broad vision and negotiating skills of his predecessor.  Competition with other space designers such as Vladimir Chelomei and Valentin Glushko resulted in inadequate funding for critical programs.  Two accidents that caused the deaths of four cosmonauts, other close calls and four successive failures of the N-1 Moon rocket ultimately led to Mishin’s dismissal in 1974.  To add insult to injury, his competitor Glushko was put in charge of the design bureau, who promptly reversed many of Mishin’s decisions and cancelled the Soviet lunar program entirely.  By that time, the Soviet government had decided to focus instead on creating space stations in low Earth orbit based on Chelomei’s designs, and then added the development of a reusable space vehicle system called Energiya-Buran, as a response to America’s Space Shuttle program.

Glushko led the bureau, in secrecy, until his death in 1989, when the Soviet Union’s impending collapse was placing heavy economic pressure on the space program.  The Energiya rocket flew only twice and the Buran space shuttle only once and without a crew before the entire program was formally cancelled in 1993.  The main source of success and pride were the series of Salyut space stations and ultimately the space station Mir (meaning Peace in Russian), where Soviet cosmonauts completed ever longer missions and conducted a variety of scientific experiments.  To overcome increasing budget shortfalls, the Russians began selling cosmonaut flight opportunities aboard Mir to foreign governments.  This included the flight of seven American astronauts as part of the Shuttle-Mir Program, leading eventually to the Russians joining the International Space Station program, contributing key hardware, experience and cosmonauts.


The Soviet space program never fully recovered after the death of the visionary Korolyov, and their dreams of landing men on the Moon never materialized.  On the other hand, after some initial setbacks in the space station program, they achieved a remarkable series of successes with their Salyut space stations culminating with the flagship Mir.  The outpost was the world’s only space station for 15 years and eventually became a new symbol of international cooperation and a source of revenue after the fall of the Soviet Union. 

Legacies from the heyday of the Soviet space program are still in evidence today.  An evolved form of the type of rocket that launched Sputnik in the 1950’s is still used today to launch crews to the ISS, including American astronauts.  The current Soyuz spacecraft used as the transport to and from the ISS is itself derived from the original Soyuz designed by Korolyov in the 1960’s.  Two of the ISS modules are derived from Mir components and the main engines used to power the American Atlas rocket are derived from engines developed by Glushko to power the Energiya rocket in the 1980’s.

For extra credit

For an excellent biography of Tsiolkovskiy, please see:  Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky: The Pioneering Rocket Scientist and His Cosmic Philosophy, by Daniel H. Shubin.

For an excellent biography of Korolyov, please see:  Korolev: How One Man Masterminded the Soviet Drive to Beat America to the Moon, by James Harford.


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