“First, inevitably, the idea, the fantasy, the fairy tale. Then, scientific calculation.”
by Diana Wehmeier (co editor Armand Guzman)
In order to better understand the grand endeavor of humankind travelling into space, we must first look to the thoughts, texts, drawings and philosophical movements, of those who laid the first stones in the foundation of space history. By studying the texts and perspectives of these early Russian cosmists it is not surprising to see the success of Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, the great hero Laika, the first living being shot into orbit, or the first manned spaceflight by Yuri Gagarin in 1961. And no, this is not an article aimed at praising Russia. It is about the fascinating process of creativity, where art comes before science, where amazing things become possible thanks to visionary dreams expressed during the very early stages of space exploration. In this article I want to highlight a fascinating personality, the early grandfather of rocketry, a man who used those principles of innovation so elegantly, a mind from which we can still learn from today, Konstantin E. Tsiolkovsky.
Tsiolkovsky is best known for his equation that he established in the early years of the 20th century. He conducted various primitive experiments on wind resistance and gravity in his home in the small Russian village of Kaluga. Through these experiments he was able to cement an analytical relationship between a rocket’s acceleration, mass and velocity at any instant in its flight. This formula is still being used for every rocket launch today. In the history of rocketry he was the earliest to theorize a way of obtaining these types of cosmic velocities, thereby directing more qualified engineers to investigate and propel this field to new heights. It is this inspirational quality that is Tsiolkovsky’s lasting and influential legacy.
How was it possible that a self-taught science teacher, from a provincial Russian village, was so far ahead of his time?
Sputnik didn’t happen in a vacuum, it did not only happen thanks to some genius contemporary minds of 1960’s. The artistic vision preceded these historic events by decades! Visions that opened the door for a groundbreaking idea: the necessity for human beings to expand. I am especially delighted at this fact, that wondrous art and celestial fantasy came first, a central fact too often overlooked.
Tsiolkovsky did not articulate his dreams and ideas on rocket flight without some inspiration himself. He built on a long tradition of theories, texts and dreams on various subjects such as flight, rockets and space travel. The roots of rocketry began in the 1850s and some inspiration comes from even earlier, during the reign of Peter the Great. Tsiolkovsky developed his own methods of discourse to publicize his ideas on rocket flight, these differed in some extent from his predecessors. He believed in teaching students and the public at large about the great significance of these inventions for humankind in order to transcend national projects and foundries. As an inventor, teacher, science-fiction writer, philosopher and humanist he envisioned spaceflight in a broad perspective, examining for its scientific, metaphysical and even practical ends. His focus on spaceflight was very much connected with the idea of Sci-Art.
“I firmly believe that what were my past dreams – interplanetary travel – based solely on theoretical foundations will soon become a practical reality.” Konstantin Tsiolkovsky 1935
Although he was almost completely deaf from a skating accident at age 10, he was tremendously motivated to learn. Traditional schooling was not easy with this disability, so he educated himself through his early teenage years by reading at local libraries. He showed great promise in mathematics and science and while studying at the National Library in Moscow, he caught the attention of a well-known philosopher of the time N. F. Fedorov. Fedorov pushed Tsiolkovsky to consider the possibility of spaceflight and inhabiting other worlds. He later joined a group of scientists who saw themselves as Federov’s disciples, philosophers that called themselves the Biocosmists. They believed that through interplanetary travel, humans could find immortality and a quasi salvation. Additionally they held other bizarre ideas, similar to utopians, beliefs in the transformative power that space exploration would have on the human race and the unbounded ability of man to transform nature and colonize the cosmos.
Cosmism not only shifted the perspective from an earth-centered to a cosmos-centered view, but also our self-image from Earth dweller to cosmic citizen. The emphasis that present humanity is not the end point of evolution, that in addition to its long past the evolutionary process also has a long future, and that humanity is now in a position to direct and shape its own future evolution. Cosmic evolution is dependent on human action to reach its goal, which is perfection or wholeness. The cosmists believe, that by failing to act correctly, humankind dooms the world to catastrophe. According to cosmism, the world is in a phase of transition from the “biosphere” (the sphere of living matter) to the “noosphere” (the sphere of reason). During this phase the act of unification and organization of the whole of humankind into a single organism would result in a higher “planetary unconsciousness” capable of guiding our development both reasonably and ethically. They believe in changing and perfecting the universe, overcoming disease and death, and finally bringing forth an immortal human race. These were very radical ideas for the time and even today! Nonetheless there are still scientists and innovators in California working on similar ideas today, to overcome the aging of cells or building highly advanced rockets.
Later cosmism posits three stages in the development of humanity:
1. Telluric, or earth-bound man, confined to the planet we inhabit
2. Solar man, inhabiting our solar system
3. Sidereal man, inhabiting all worlds throughout the entire universe
Believing that only the third, sidereal stage of humanity brings the absolute freedom that is the goal and perfection of all human movement and development.
Tsiolkovsky shared Fedorov’s worry that the Earth was overcrowded, and they both believed the only solution to relieve this pressure was to expand into space. Fedorov once stated: “I am going to do mathematics with you, and you will help mankind build rockets so that we will finally be able to know more than earth and so that we can see our earth from afar traveling in the heavens. People need a distant look, because only those people who are thinking about the future are real and present.” Another statement that Fedorov repeats many times in his writings: good deeds, good intentions, good habits and good technologies.