Thursday, March 29, 2012

The beginning is half of everything: Konstantin by Tom Bullough

A few years ago, it occurred to me that we wouldn't be going back to the Moon in my lifetime. Big deal, you may think (particularly if you are not a space buff), but for someone like me who grew up reading about Apollo rockets in children's book, and dreaming of future flights into space as inevitable, this thought was both profound and depressing.

It's kind of inevitable I guess. Stripped of its role as an alternative to global conflict, shifted into a world which finds risk unpalatable, human spaceflight has spiralled in ever decreasing circles in an attempt to find commercial reasons to justify its existence, which (pay-TV and mobile phone satellites aside) it has never really found. Even space tourism will mean rich folk paying for sub-orbital flights giving seven minutes of weightlessness. Inspiring, huh?

So I found Tom Bullough's Konstantin refreshing and inspiring, a fictionalised account of the life of the grandfather of spaceflight, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. I'm indebited to Gaskella for tipping me off about this book, and although it wasn't quite the book I was expecting, it is a little gem and I loved it.

The book itself is lovingly produced, with an interesting bit of kindleproofing on the cover, which folds out into a representation of the solar system. It's an effective way of mixing art and science, which sets the scene nicely for one of the key themes of the book. 

Tsiolkovsky was the first to derive many of the fundamental principles of spaceflight, including things such as reaction-propelled spaceships (i.e. burning fuel inside a craft and using the exhaust gases to make it go - which is why you never see flames in space, there's no oxygen). He also imagined how spaceships could be kept on track using gyroscopes (these are the things that keep the Hubble Space Telescope stable, for example, and need replacing when they fail).

This is remarkable for a deaf, self-educated middle class Russian who turned up in Moscow with nothing.

His ideas inspired a generation of engineers, including the Soviet 'Chief Designer' Sergei Korolev (who's Sputnik satellite ignited the space race, lifting off almost 100 years to the day of Tsiolkovsky's birth). A translation of one of Tsiolkovsky's books was found in the possessions of Werner Von Braun, designer of the V-2 rocket and subsequently the Apollo rocket.

Despite plenty of astrophysics, it is the story of Tsiolkovsky's life (particularly his young life) that most captures the imagination. The writing style is straight from a classic Russian novel: the wonderful rhythm of the Russian names, the longing for escape from harsh rural life, the use of archaic language (notably the verst as unit of measurement). Nineteenth century Russia shapes both Tsiolkovsky's character and imagination. The sense of place that Bullough creates - pristine forest, grimy town, in and out of the grip of the harsh Russian Winter - crystalises the thought that in Russia, the landscape comes closest to something lunar and otherworldly, and that perhaps it is no surprise that it was a Russian who made the leap of imagination to wonder how humans might venture into space.



But Tsiolkovsky was not operating in a vacuum (no pun intended). Science and engineering were already changing the world rapidly, and the influence of ideas from outside Russia - most notably from a reading Jules Verne - were key to fostering his imagination.

By going back to the source of many of the most important theories of spaceflight, by recreating the world in which he lived and where he received his inspiration from, we can imagine sweeping aside the historical baggage and starting again with the essence of what space offers humanity - a future springing from the highest ideals of progress. These ideas come to Tsiolkovsky through my favourite character of the book, the fabulous Moscow librarian Nikolai Fedorov. The book incidentally serves as another reminder of the importance and power of libraries and curated knowledge, and you feel that Fedorov - with his fusing of secularism and mysticism, his resolving the paradox of needing logic allied with faith, would make mincemeat of a Dawkins or even a De Botton.



The book ends with a lyrical description of the world's first spacewalk, with Alexei Leonov on Voskhod II. Taking insane risks for propaganda purposes, Leonov risked 'The Bends' by depressurising his spacesuit so much in order to get back into his spaceship. But the fact of the matter is that he became the first 'human' to exist as a satellite of the Earth, a line drawn directly from Tsiolkovsky's imagination.

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