l'aéronautique, le spatial, les choses de l'air et du vide, et leurs environnements au prise des SHS

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Rudolph Biérent

A Philosophical Insight of Soviet Space Conquest


Il est essentiel de répondre à la question « Pourquoi aller dans l’espace ? » pour comprendre pourquoi les pionniers soviétiques ont poussé leur gouvernement à investir dans la conquête spatiale, et non seulement dans les applications militaires des fusées. Si nous ne répondons pas à cette question, nous sommes contraints soit de nous en remettre à la propagande soviétique, soit de tenir les pionniers pour des fantaisistes. Pourtant, la philosophie russe du xixe siècle pressait déjà l’humanité à s’élancer dans les espaces cosmiques. En 1903, Konstantin Tsiolkovski prouve théoriquement la faisabilité de l’envoi d’une fusée dans l’espace cosmique à l’aide de la propulsion par réaction. À partir de ces résultats, les pionniers soviétiques en démarrent la réalisation pratique dès les années 1920, aboutissant à leur première fusée à ergols liquides lancée en 1934.
Déportés et libérés après-guerre pour étudier les missiles nazis V-2, les constructeurs de fusées furent forcés de servir des enjeux militaires. C’est seulement après l’immense enthousiasme populaire mondial suscité par le lancement de Spoutnik qu’apparut un discours politique sur la conquête spatiale. Mais le discours politique ne fut jamais en accord avec l’idéal des pionniers russes : la conquête de l’espace doit être une cause commune rassemblant fraternellement toute l’humanité.


The question “Why to go to space?” is essential to understand why Soviet pioneers pushed their government to invest in space conquest, and not only in military applications of rocketry. If we neglect to find the pioneers’ answer, either we rely on the Soviet propaganda or we believe that pioneers were mere fantasists. Yet, since the 19h century Russian philosophy urges humanity to go to space. In 1903, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky published his calculations proving theoretically that a rocket can be launched to cosmic space thanks to jet propulsion. Laying on this basis, Soviet pioneers started the practical development of space rockets from the 1920s, and launched their first liquid-propellant rocket on 1934.
Being deported and freed after the war to study the German military rocket V-2, Soviet space rocket engineers were forced to work for military purposes. Only after the huge enthusiasm worldwide that followed the first artificial satellite launch, a political discourse about space conquest arose. But the political discourse never complied with the Russian pioneering ideal: space conquest should be a common cause uniting in peace the whole humanity.

Texte intégral

1. Introduction: philosophy is the blind spot of the Soviet space conquest history

1Because no philosophical insight of the Soviet space conquest has been proposed so far, we face bewilderment to comment actuality of space engineering. If you ask to any institution the question “Why should we go to space?”, nobody will be able to give you a decent answer. Or maybe this one: once access to space exists, there is an economic market to run and a military advantage to take over your opponent1. But do we seriously believe that space engineering pioneers made access to space possible for such purposes? Did the huge space fad worldwide after the first artificial satellite launch, first man in space and first man on the Moon stemmed from economical or military perspectives? It is not serious. But let’s say the institutions are not supposed to answer to the question “Why should we go to space?” If the engineers do not know why they do their job, it is their personal problem. However, we may expect from historians of science or specialist of soviet studies to give us a glimpse of the answer, at least from the historical perspective. Why did the pioneers want us to go to space? But once again, you shall be bewildered as they don’t give the answer, because they are stuck to the political point of view, or the means of power, which made the space conquest possible. Either historians of Soviet science limit their work to the history of power, or they elude the philosophical, deep aspirations of the public and of those people who made space conquest technically possible. The popular historian of soviet science Asif Siddiqi tells us that space fad comes from imagination or science-fiction2. However, France had first class science-fiction writers, such as Jules Verne and Camille Flammarion, who wrote about space conquest. It doesn’t mean French engineers looked for technical solutions to concretely go to space. But Konstantin Tsiolkovsky did it in 1903, founding astronautics with an article called The Exploration of World Space by Means of Reaction Devices3. You shall notice in Tsiolkovsky’s article the will to develop reactive propulsion specifically to save a crew inside the rocket, as a cannon ball projection imagined by Jules Verne was not only doomed to be insufficient to reach high enough velocity, but would kill the crew due to unbearable acceleration. Yet Tsiolkovsky and all famous Soviet engineers (let’s cite F. Tsander, S. Korolev, M. Tikhonvarov, V. Glouchko, but also Y. Gagarin among cosmonauts) tell us why to carry a crew.

2After having defused the problematic of mankind’s need to go to space, arguing about imagination of the public and engineers and slandering about “Tsiolkovsky’s occultism” or “Vernadsky’s infection of the Academy of science”4, Siddiqi makes the public and the engineers discourse comply with the very specific narrative of the Soviet regime. His colleague Slava Gerovitch is fascinated by the political ambition to create a new soviet man. At some point, he finds a paradox between extreme automation of space rocket guiding, implying minimal role of the crew almost “merging with the machine”, and the idealized cosmonaut in outer space. Yet the extreme automation of space rocket guiding finds its justification in mere technical reasons: how to design of a new mean of transportation through a new medium, cosmic space. When you take the plane to go anywhere, aren’t you relieved to know that your plane is as fully automatized as possible to avoid any human mistake, the pilot taking care of the plane only in case of emergency? Are we all victims of Soviet propaganda when we fly by plane with any company around the world? At the end, even Slava Guerovitch has to admit that the American propaganda putting more attention to the astronaut is in fact not relevant. Indeed, the American engineers, as any engineer around the world, were more keen on flight security than political discourses, and ended up with the same level of automation as their Soviet colleagues5. The Soviet space conquest cannot be reduced to the representations given by Soviet propaganda, or it may only generate false paradoxes. To understand in depth Soviet space conquest, we cannot avoid the main question: “Why should we go to space?”. We should keep in mind that the idea was not only to carry few astronauts to the low Earth orbit, to look at the Earth and to come back. But also the idea was to transport many people, the very ordinary people, and to bring human presence to some world further. We will discuss it in the next section.

3Specialist of Soviet studies may have tried to understand the pioneers from a crude scientific or engineering point of view, without any political interferences. Alexei Kojevnikov reads Tsiolkovsky’s and his follower’s A. Chijevsky scientific articles and claims that “catastrophism” is Tsiolkovsky’s leitmotiv for space exploration6. But it is much more complicated. Everyone knows that a rather insignificant meteorite from the cosmos can eradicate human civilisation. But one can still argue that such an event is highly unlikely. Before writing his article founding astronautics, Tsiolkovsky was a specialist in thermodynamics. He discovered the thermodynamics of non-equilibrium and the spontaneous disruption of symmetry in large scale gaseous systems, in which gravitation cannot be anymore neglected7, against Maxwell and Thompson’s assumptions. About one century later, the chemistry Nobel prize Ilya Prigogine warns us about possible gravific effect on a gas, leading to the idea that the second law of thermodynamics could not be as general as we thought8. Such a challenge to former scientific obviousness already happened in the beginning of the 20th century: quantum mechanics put an end to so-called generality of classical (Newtonian) mechanics. Relying on his scientific discovery, Tsiolkovsky makes at least two fundamental conclusions:

41) The universe is not doomed to thermal death, it has processes to condensate again and forever the dispelled energy9. Without life and reason inside it, universe could be described only by eternal cycles. His follower Chijevsky paid specific attention to the 11-year-cycles of the Sun and their consequences on Earth life. According to solar activity, the life of human beings could be deeply affected. But many other cosmic cycles can also have their significance10.

52) Mankind is not doomed to suffer from the cosmic cycles. It has to use its skills and its power of reason to overcome blind nature, and eventually make nature conscious. This is already what Tsiolkovsky’s former teacher, Nikolai Fedorov11, taught him in Moscow during his three years of study there. Then Tsiolkovsky’s father called him back. Back home, Tsiolkovsky switched from thermodynamics to astronautics.

2. The Russian cosmism or why should we go to space?

6One should find interesting the following fact: Russian philosophy of space conquest was born at the same time as Russian intellectuals looked for cultural independence from prevailing French culture. It happened right after the Russian imperial army managed to break the Napoleonic invasion of 1812. Philosophical circles started to rise in Moscow in the 1820’s, as Prince Vladimir Odoyevsky founded the first of them12. On one hand, German romantic philosophy fascinated the Russian young philosophers, on the other hand the Lumières philosophy, the reduction of the world understanding to pure rationality and the overwhelming industrialism in Western Europe faced their disgust. In Odoyevsky’s thought, Malthusianism and free competition praised by Adam Smith’s economics encompassed the worst of the new Western culture13. But after having strongly criticized the new rational European culture, contrasting with beloved religious French writers (on the top of them Pascal, but also Montaigne, Fénelon, Bossuet and many others), Russian intellectuals have to propose a positive philosophy solving with dignity social problems, such as overpopulation or poverty among the workers, that Western philosophy gave up to the blind laws of nature. Odoyevsky’s short novel The year 4338 anticipates how Russia solved in far future all its problems. A major concept of Russian philosophy is born: the “regulation of nature”. We are not talking neither about exploitation of nature nor non-interventionism (motivated by respect towards wild nature), but namely about regulation. Extremist non-interventionism would quickly kill all humans after a single Russian winter. Russians definitely have to protect themselves from nature with a shelter, and the contrast between a warm home and the look on frozen Russian landscape from the window fascinates Odoyevsky. However, the coal extraction highly needed for the industry must not end into the ill-treatment of even a small proportion of the population. The dark face minors are clearly reduced to slavery and the extraction area gets highly polluted, while the industrial goods production not only satisfies basics needs, but also bourgeois taste. Therefore, to solve both problems of social and nature exploitation, and of blind nature mitigation, Odoyevsky’s futuristic Russia managed to divert the warm streams from the equators to Russia, as well as the cold streams from Russia to the equators. As a result, both frozen Russia and hot infertile lands change their climate into a mild one best fitted for human inhabiting. According to the short story, only Russia, soon imitated by China, managed to do so in far future because Western countries have been struck dumb by the strongest blind force of nature: lust for profit and institutional justice as social fundamentals, eventually justified by mercantile spirit and Lumières philosophy. At the end, Russia gathers its forces to go to space to save the whole humanity, including corrupted Western countries, from a gigantic meteorite rushing to the Earth.

7We must understand from Odoyevsky’s short story written in 1837 that imagination by itself is absolutely not the key to understand Russian and later Soviet engineers fascination for space. Of course, till the technology is not ready, literature anticipates, but for the sake of highly concrete economical and philosophical issues, and not mere fantasy. Odoyevsky’s short novel has been followed for a century by many other novels imagining Russian space conquest not only to save the Earth but also to colonize new worlds to defeat Malthus’ theory. Famous Alexander Bogdanov’s novel The Red Star (1908) stages a Russian man – Russia being the only trustworthy country as France has been explicitly discarded – observing the highly moral Martian society fighting against malthusianism while looking for an other planet than the Earth. In his following novel Engineer Menni (1912), Bogdanov explains us how the Martian society managed to become moral starting from its feudal age.

8The fight against blind forces of nature, both physical and psychological, gets philosophically systematized by Nikolai Fedorov’s “common cause”14. Being a Fedorov’s follower, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky both developed technological and philosophical response to malthusianism, till the suppression of suffer in the world (with strong Buddhist inclination15). Like Fedorov, Tsiolkovsky does not believe in definite death of a man16. Science should focus on this problematic. As Odoyevsky praises alchemist science against new science exploiting nature, Tsiolkovsky’s science also intends both mankind and nature purification (from blind forces).

3. The Soviet engineers sacrifice to promote peace against the regime will

9We can hardly say Soviet rocket engineers have read the cosmist philosophy, apart maybe from Friedrich Tsander, founding in 1931 the gird (Gruppa Izucheniya Reaktivnogo Dvizheniya or in English Group for the Study of Reactive Motion). He soon recruited Serguei Korolev, the latter shifting from plane to rocket design. Tsander’s admiration for Tsiolkovsky he actually met in Kaluga is boundless, as well as Korolev’s affection to Tsander. In the gird workshops, everybody was working to carry a crew to Mars, as Tsander explicitly shouted to his teammates to hearten them17. The Moon is already not their main interest. The interest is to colonize a new planet. Tsiolkovsky is the common idol. His name will be pronounced by Korolev in an official context to the students of his former university, the Moscow State Technical University (Bauman), a week before the first artificial satellite “Sputnik” was launched. One month after Sputnik’s launch, the first living being is sent to space, as the gird planned from the very beginning. Tsiolkovsky’s legacy is again recalled when Gagarin and his fellow cosmonauts started their engineering studies after Gagarin’s space flight. Let’s compel now Gerovitch’s assertion about Korolev reducing his cosmonauts to “little eagles” automates inside the rocket. The man freedom within space rocket engineering is not about boasting being a superman flying in the cosmos, but to ensure at any cost – and the minimal cost is automation – the crew life. Soviet cosmonauts have never been reduced to automates. As Korolev says, a pilot must be able to design the machine he flies in. Korolev did fly in the gliders he designed. So must do the cosmonauts. Even after he became worldwide famous, Gagarin did not turn towards politics. He could have easily bidden his time as a powerful official of the Communist Party, as he was strongly encouraged to. But Gagarin preferred to become again a student. He considered he needed to know how is made a rocket. Gagarin still had to eminently suffer from the political role the Party wanted him to play. And Gagarin did not flee from his duty. He would have become an engineer, had his life not been so short.

10The passion for cosmos (the Russian word kosmos should not be understood straightly as space) drove the famous names of Soviet space conquest. In accordance with the deep anti-militaristic attitude of the Russian cosmists and of Tsiolkovsky, Soviet rocket engineers highlighted their desire to separate military purposes from a possible international scientific collaboration aiming only to go to space. Yves Gauthier, quoting from Korolev biographer Iaroslav Golovanov, reminds us Korolev’s attempts to convince Soviet bureaucrats to separate the military and non-military activities in 1959 and to promote international cooperation18. Eventually, Korolev gave up to his colleagues all military applications after Gagarin’s flight. It is very painful to notice that lengthy North American books on the topic omit to mention the pacific attitude of Soviet engineers. Their patriotism and their fear that Soviet Union could be overwhelmed by the United-States should not hide their sense of responsibility and their commitment to involve all nations pacifically in space conquest. The emblematic case of Andrei Sakharov, both having provided his nation with the atomic bomb and then denouncing Soviet military-industrial complex should give us a hint about the depth and the complexity of the Soviet engineers psychology. On the other hand, political leaders psychology is much rougher and not sufficient at all to understand the Soviet space conquest. Besides, considering Korolev has been tortured and sent for seven years to the gulag and to a sharashka (scientific institute hiring prisoners), who can believe Korolev could have been a supporter of the Soviet regime? Siddiqi argues that Korolev took again the lead of Soviet rocket engineering after the Second World War thanks to his “ambition”. Yet Korolev has been known by the public only after his death; still, he never gave up his mission to take humanity to cosmos. The ambition of many would have soon crumbled away in such conditions.

11The history of Russian cosmism and of Soviet rocket engineers has something to teach us, we should not miss it. It is the history of men and women who did refuse a world corrupted by concurrence and mercantile spirit, and hoped to unite the whole world thanks to what they believed to be the oldest dream of humanity.


V. F. Odoyevsky, 4338-yj god (The Year 4338), 1835.

V. F. Odoyevsky, Russkie nochi (The Russian Nights), 1844.

N. F. Fedorov, Filosofiya obsheva dela (Philosophy of the Common Cause), 1903.

K. E. Tsiolkovsky, Prodolzhitel’nost’ lucheispuskaniya Solnca (The Continuous Emission of Solar Light), Nauchnyj obzor, 1897

K. E. Tsiolkovsky, Issledovanie mirovyh prostransv reaktivnymi priborami (The Exploration of World Space by Means of Reaction Devices), Nauchnyj obzor, 1903.

K. E. Tsiolkovsky, Vtoroe nachalo termodinamiki (The Second Law of Thermodynamics), 1905.

K. E. Tsiolkovsky, Nirvana, 1914.

K. E. Tsiolkovsky, Nauchnaya etika (Scientific Ethics), 1927.

K. E. Tsiolkovsky, Volia Vselennoy (The Will of the Universe), 1928.

V. I. Vernadsky, Biosfera (Biosphere), 1926.

A. L. Tchizhevski, L’Aube de la conquête du cosmos, Éditions du progrès, 1937.

A. Koyré, La Philosophie et le Problème national en Russie au début du xixe siècle, Honoré Champion, 1929.

I. Prigogine and I. Stengers, La Nouvelle Alliance, Folio Essais, 1986.

S. Gerovitch, “‘New Soviet Man’ Inside Machine: Human Engineering, Spacecraft Design, and the Construction of Communism”, Chicago Journals – History of science society, 2007.

A. A. Siddiqi, The Red Rocket’s Glare – Spaceflight and the Soviet Imagination, 1857-1957, Cambridge University Press (2010).

A. Kojevnikov, The Cultural Spaces of the Soviet Cosmos in Into the Cosmos – Space Exploration and Soviet Culture, University of Pittsburg Press, 2011.

Y. Gauthier, Gagarine ou le rêve russe de l’espace, Ginkgo éditeurs, 2015.

G. Penent, “Why go to Space? Justifications, Motivations and Contributions to the Contemporary Debate on Space Power” in Nacelles (issue n°2), 2017.

R. Biérent, L’Impératif cosmique, vol. 1: L’avant-garde russe du xixe siècle, 2019.


1 See G. Penent, “Why go to Space? Justifications, Motivations and Contributions to the Contemporary Debate on Space Power” in Nacelles (issue n°2), Thematic Section: À la recherche de l’Espace, updated on 25/05/2017, URL:

2 See Asif A. Siddiqi, The red rocket’s glare – Spaceflight and the soviet imagination, 1857-1957, Cambridge University Press (2010).

3 K. E. Tsiolkovsky, Issledovanie mirovyh prostransv reaktivnymi priborami, Nauchnyj obzor, 1903.

4 As for example, see p. 80 of mentioned Siddiqi’s book. Yet you must know that Vladimir Vernadsky is the founder of geochemistry and ecology with his book La biosphère (first edition in french in 1926). But in opposition to modern ecology, Vernadsky extends the Earth system to the whole cosmos and considers that ecology should serve mankind and not nature itself. Man is part of that nature to be protected.

5 S. Gerovitch, “‘New Soviet Man’ Inside Machine: Human Engineering, Spacecraft Design, and the Construction of Communism”, Chicago Journals, pp. 154-157 – History of science society, 2007.

6 A. Kojevnikov, The Cultural Spaces of the Soviet Cosmos in Into the Cosmos – Space Exploration and Soviet Culture, edited by James T. Andrews and Asif. A. Siddiqi, University of Pittsburg Press, 2011.

7 K. E. Tsiolkovsky, Prodolzhitel’nost’ lucheispuskaniya Solnca (The continuous emission of Solar light), 1897.

8 I. Prigogine, I. Stengers, La Nouvelle Alliance, p. 279, Folio Essais, 1986.

9 K. E. Tsiolkovsky, Vtoroe nachalo termodinamiki (The second law of thermodynamics), 1905. Vernadsky postulates the same in La biosphère (1926), that is why he is usually classified as a “biocosmist”, even though he does not call straightly for space conquest.

10 See first chapter of A. L. Tchizhevski, L’Aube de la conquête du cosmos, Éditions du Progrès, 1973 (first edition in french in 1937).

11 As Fedorov says in an article written in 1892: “Nature created the mechanism, but also the mechanic” (p. 360 in Sochineniya, Mysl’ editors, 1982). As for Tsiolkovsky, he already considers that the whole universe follows the will of a higher conscience. See K. E. Tsiolkovsky, Volia Vselennoy (The Will of the Universe), 1928.

12 Alexandre Koyré, La Philosophie et le Problème national en Russie au début du xixe siècle, éd. Honoré Champion, 1929.

13 “The Malthusian ideas, based on the coarse materialism of Adam Smith, on a simple arithmetical mistake in calculation, have poured into society from the heights of Parliament chairs like molten lead, burning its noblest elements and cooling down inside lower lower levels. Perhaps there is one consolation in this phenomenon: Malthus is the last absurdity in mankind; one cannot go any further in that direction.” V. Odoyevsky, The Russian Nights (1844).

14 For a thorough study of Odoyevsky and Fedorov’s philosophical fight against malthusianism and, on a wider range, how they define the place of man in the cosmos, see my book: R. Biérent, L’Impératif cosmique, vol. 1: L’avant-garde russe du xixe siècle, éd. Publishroom Factory, 2019.

15 In his article Nirvana (1914), Tsiolkovsky considers our sensitive life as a dream concealing our real life. Sensation mitigation shall drive us to our real life.

16 Among many articles of Tsiolkovsky dealing with this topic, see Nauchnaya etika (Scientific ethics), 1927.

17 After Gagarin’s flight, the crowd spontaneously demonstrated in Moscow, without any party officials. The motto was: “And now, Mars!”. See Y. Gauthier, Gagarine ou le rêve russe de l’espace, Ginkgo éditeurs, 2015, p. 243.

18 Korolev’s proposal was to create an “International scientific centre for cosmic space exploration”. The proposal was rejected by Khrushchev. Ibid., p. 95.

Pour citer ce document

Rudolph Biérent, «A Philosophical Insight of Soviet Space Conquest», Nacelles [En ligne], Faire système. Planètes, satellites, comètes, astéroïdes, XVIe-XIXe siècles, Varia, mis à jour le : 24/01/2020, URL :

Quelques mots à propos de :  Rudolph Biérent

Ph.D in physics/photonics
Associate Member in Centre Gilles Gaston Granger (CNRS)
University Aix-Marseille