Nikolai Ivanovich Kibalchich was a Russian revolutionary who developed the world’s first design of a manned rocket-propelled craft. The design incorporated a gimbaled rocket engine, flight control, programmed burning of propellant and other unique features.
Kibalchich, the son of an Orthodox parish priest, was born in Chernigov, in the Ukraine region of Russia in either 1850 or 1854. He entered the St. Petersburg University of Railway Engineers in 1871, and while there, experimented in rocket propulsion. He then transferred to the Medical Surgery Academy in 1873, but in 1875, was arrested for distributing a banned book. After awaiting charges in prison for three years he was sentenced to a two-month term. Leaving jail in 1878 as a confirmed revolutionary, Kibalchich resumed his subversive activities by joining the Narodniks, (“People’s Will”), a radical anti-government group. He became their “chief technician” making explosives for terrorist attacks. Ironically, the group’s principle victim was reform-minded Tsar Alexander II, assassinated on March 1, 1881. Kibalchich and four others were arrested on March 17, convicted of producing the bombs used by the actual assassins, and summarily sentenced to hang.
While in his prison cell, Khibalchich sketched a design for a rocket, propelled by a solid-fuel engine attached to a platform, that could be steered by adjusting the direction of thrust of the engine and the platform’s angle. The crew of the ship would ride atop the platform, which would be on top of a vertically mounted thrust chamber. Gunpowder would be fed continuously into the chamber and ignited. The resulting explosive thrust would be used to raise the platform and keep it airborne. Although his papers did not surface until 1918, Kibalchich had proposed a primitive form of the gimbaled engine, a mainstay of modern rocketry.
On March 31, 1881, in a formal appeal for clemency to the Minister of Internal Affairs Kibalchich wrote, “I am writing this project in prison, a few days before my death. I believe in the practicability of my idea and this faith supports me in my terrible situation.… If my idea … is recognized as emplementable, I will be happy with the fact that I have made a huge favor to my native land and to humanity.”
Kibalchich continued, “What kind of force is applicable to aeronautics? Such force, I believe, is slowly burning explosives…. My thoughts about a possible flying device led me to focus on the problem of what kind of force will drive the machine.” He drew a diagram of what was essentially a jet engine, a hollow metal cylinder with a hole at the bottom. “If the cylinder faces upward with its closed end, then with a certain pressure of the exhaust . . . the cylinder should take off…. I think that in practice, such a task is achievable . . . and can be accomplished with modern technology.” With this statement, Nikolai Kibalchich had made the earliest known proposal of manned rocket aircraft.
In his note to his captors Kibalchich asked for the speedy “issuance of a command on permitting an interview with a member of the committee in regard to this project . . . or obtaining a written answer from a commission of experts” to forestall his imminent execution. Due to inefficiency typical of the Tsarist regime it was not until March 26, 1882 that the head of the gendarmes decided to satisfy this appeal. Unfortunately, Kibalchich’s and his four co-conspirators had been executed in a mass hanging on April 3, 1881.
Kibalchich’s proposal was purposely buried in government archives for political reasons until August 1917 when it was discovered by Bolshevik researchers. In 1918, Kibalchich’s ideas appeared in a Bolshevik magazine, and the Soviets broadcast his revolutionary vision, primarily for propaganda purposes.
Although ignition of Kibalchich’s proposed gunpowder-filled engine would have probably killed all aboard his craft, Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, the leading early Soviet rocket scientist, considered Kibalchich his greatest predecessor, and his innovative proposals were the fitful beginnings of manned exploration of outer space. A crater on the Moon is named after Nikolai Ivanovich Kibalchich.