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By Roger Highfield on

Russia’s 19th century cosmic pioneers

The ideas that fuelled the birth of the space age dawned much longer ago than many realise. In their research for our Cosmonauts exhibition, Science Museum curators traced the origins of the first great leap into space by Yuri Gagarin in 1961 to events that took place well before the turn of the 20th century.

Russian fascination with the cosmos first flickered into life in the 1880s with the appearance in print of the first translations of Western science fiction novels by French writers such as Camille Flammarion, Henri De Graffigny and Jules Verne – notably De la terre à la lune (From the Earth to the Moon), in which a cannon was used for a moon shot. Verne’s novel also inspired three gifted individuals, each working independently in different countries.

V2 rocket in the Making the Modern World gallery. Credit Science Museum
V2 rocket in the Making the Modern World gallery. Credit Science Museum

The first two, Robert Goddard, an American, and Hermann Oberth, born to German-speaking parents in Transylvania (now Romania), were professors of physics who subsequently developed the first liquid-propelled rocket and the first long-range ballistic missile, the V-2, respectively.

The third great architect of the space age was Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, a self-educated Russian polymath, now known as the grandfather of Soviet space travel. A crater on the far side of the moon is now named in his honour and, as well as featuring examples of his work and even one of his ear trumpets. Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age will open the day after his birthday, 17th September.

Tsiolkovsky wrote both science fiction and treatises on rocket propulsion. His article “The Investigation of Outer Space by Means of Rocket Devices”, published in 1903, introduced the idea of using liquid propellants as rocket fuel and also discussed weightlessness.

Though this marked the first mathematical explanation of how it would be possible to shake of the shackles of the Earth’s gravity to venture into space, the article made little impact. However, his follow up article in 1911 and Aims of Astronauts in 1914 aroused wider interest by discussing two key problems: rocket motors and interplanetary communication.

Unlike Goddard and Oberth, Tsiolkovsky never built an actual rocket. However, the cosmic vision depicted in his drawings, novels and scientific papers became hugely influential. Sergei Korolev, Chief Designer of the Russian space programme (whose portrait looms over the exhibition), later commented that Tsiolkovsky’s theory of multi-stage rockets – “rocket trains” – to all intents and purposes opened the path for humanity to get into space.

Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Credit: Archive of Russian Academy of Sciences
Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. Credit: Archive of Russian Academy of Sciences

At the turn of the 20th century cosmism emerged in Russia, blending ideas from Western and Eastern philosophy along with those of the Russian Orthodox church to ponder the origin, evolution and future of the cosmos and humankind.

Perhaps the leading figure of this movement was Nikolai Fedorov, an advocate of radical life extension by means of scientific methods and of resurrection too – the exhibition includes his Outline of the Image of a Universal Task of Resurrection (around 1900) which depicts humanity’s duty to achieve immortality.

During that time at the end of the nineteenth century Tsiolkovsky conceived of a grandiose project: to set out key philosophical questions  “from a cosmic point of view”, not least how Earth could cope with immortal humans, publishing his ideas in the following decades. To cope with the burgeoning demands of Earth’s ever-growing population, he believed the future of humanity lay in the heavens. As he put it,

“The Earth is the cradle of humanity, but mankind cannot stay in the cradle.”

Tsiolkovsky argued that colonizing space would lead to the perfection of the human race.  He believed that humanity had every reason for “cosmic optimism”, since it was possible for human culture to develop without limits in the vastness of the cosmos. For Tsiokovsky the goal of space exploration was to achieve universal happiness.

Cosmic fascination was by then commonplace. Russians had been enthralled when the American Percival Lovell, who founded the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, speculated that the red planet was home to an advanced but now dead civilization that had constructed canals to transport water, in three books: Mars (1895), Mars and Its Canals (1906) and Mars As the Abode of Life (1908). (Today many scientists believe that Mars might have been able to support life, probably in the past when it had oceans, but that it most likely would have been microbial). In 1915, Yakov Perelman, the son of Russian Jewish intellectuals, wrote what was thought to be the first serious book on space travel, Interplanetary Travel.

The allure of the cosmos was amplified in the wake of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the subsequent civil war that would see the ascendance of the Red Army, fighting for the Bolshevik brand of socialism. The new Bolshevik leaders of the Soviet Union fully embraced science and technology and there was a hunger for an optimistic vision of the future that transcended the horrors of the First World War.

By 1924, the media “seemed to have found a new craze: space travel”, comments Asif Siddiqi, a professor of history at Fordham University in New York. “The cosmos seemed to be everywhere,” he writes in the book to accompany the exhibition. “Prominent public figures gave talks to an enraptured public, enthusiasts joined together to discuss interplanetary flight, publishers issued books with fantastic illustrations, and a feature film on space exploration had just been released to theatres.”

Enthusiasts formed the first societies dedicated to space travel. Among them was the Society for the Study of Interplanetary Communications, formed in the spring of 1924 at the Zhukovsky Air Force Academy in Moscow and driven by Fridrikh Tsander, who in 1922 resigned from his job at a factory to design a space plane powered by a rocket engine that would make efficient use of melted aluminium from its fuselage as fuel. Tsander also analysed re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere and landing.

Nikolai Rynin, a specialist in aeronautics who organised a similar society in Leningrad, wrote a nine-volume encyclopaedia, Interplanetary Communications, published between 1928 and 1932, which sought to bring together everything written in any language about space travel, including folk tales, medieval speculations, modern science fiction, and the most recent works of Tsiolkovsky, Goddard and Oberth (with Perelman, Rynin had written to both Goddard and Oberth asking them for the latest information on American and German advances in the field of astronautics).

Based on rumours of Goddard’s plans, the Soviet press began to speculate that the American was planning to launch a rocket to the Moon timed for 4 July 1924, US Independence Day. In early October, the Society held a widely advertised talk by a well-known astronomer on the topic of “The Truth about the Dispatching of Professor Goddard’s Projectile to the Moon”. The crowds outside were so unruly that the horse-borne Moscow militia was summoned to keep them under control.

Three years later, in the spring of 1927, the “World’s First Exhibition of Models of Interplanetary Equipment, Mechanisms, and Historical Materials” was held in Moscow, depicting the history of space travel, from the twilight in the 19th century to the ideas of Tsiolkovsky, Tsander, Goddard, Oberth and others. The show was a great success and can be regarded as the progenitor of all space exhibitions, including Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age.

But Tsiolkovsky had struggled after the Revolution, said Siddiqi. He was arrested by the secret police on charges of treason (and spent a brief time in prison) and ended up nearly destitute in the early 1920s. “When news of Goddard and Oberth’s writings reached the Soviet press, Tsiolkovsky, hurt by the negligence of ideas in his native nation, republished his works, claiming – entirely rightly – that he had pre-empted both of the foreigners by decades in predicting the reality of space travel.”

Drawing by Tsiolkovksy for the film ‘Cosmic Voyage’ showing a cosmonaut exiting a rocket via an airlock, 1932. Credit: Archive of Russian Academy of Science
Drawing by Tsiolkovksy for the film ‘Cosmic Voyage’ showing a cosmonaut exiting a rocket via an airlock, 1932. Credit: Archive of Russian Academy of Science

The exhibition shows sketches from Tsiolkovsky’s Album of Cosmic Journeys (1932), prepared for the production of the film The Cosmic Voyage, which demonstrate the effects of weightlessness, how to store food in a rocket, airlocks and other details of spaceflight. They are strikingly prescient of the very first space missions.

By the mid-1930s, however, the space fad had been overshadowed by the growing fascination with the more realistic ambitions of aviation, such as jet propulsion.

Still, the Soviet space obsession of the interwar years paid handsome dividends. Most Russians were thrilled when the first artificial satellite, Sputnik, was launched in 1957 and Yuri Gagarin soared into the heavens in 1961 with a cry of “Let’s go!” Perhaps by then, in the wake of the cosmism fad, the first great leap into space by humans seemed almost inevitable.

Roger Highfield is Director of External Affairs at the Science Museum. 

Cosmonauts: Birth of the Space Age is open from 18 September 2015 – 13 March 2016. The exhibition is supported by BP and has additional support from ART RUSSE (Major Funder) and the Blavatnik Family Foundation.