Herman Noordnung Potočnik

Slovenian space travel pioneer

When Herman Potočnik, a retired captain and construction engineer in the Austro-Hungarian army published his book The Problem of Space Travel - The Rocket Motor, he did it under the pen name Noordung. His true identity remained hidden during his lifetime for reasons that are still a matter for speculation. The book was published in 1929 in German by the famous and prestigious Berlin publishing house Richard Carl Schmidt & Co. under the title Das Problem der Befahrung des Weltraums: der Rokettmotor.

The work dealt with the possibilities of overcoming gravity. It claimed that there were no technological, economical, or medical and biological obstacles to creating and inhabiting a space station. Noordung space station consisted of up to three modules: the "Wohnrad" (inhabitable wheel), the power station and the observatory. The modules would be connected with cables. The inhabitable wheel is in the form of a giant wheel and rotates to simulate gravity in the living area. On top of the wheel there would be parabolic mirrors mounted to concentrate the solar radiation for the power supply through a heat engine power station.

Herman Potočnik was born in a Slovenian family on December 22, 1892, in the city of Pola in Austria-Hungary (nowadays Pula, Republic of Croatia. His father, a naval military surgeon, died when Herman was fourteen months old, and the family moved with their mother to Maribor (now Republic of Slovenia), where Herman finished his primary school education. He attended the lower military school in Fischau and a higher military school in Mährisch Weisskirchen (now Hranice, Czech Republic, ed.). In 1910, he enrolled at the technical military academy in Mödling, near Vienna, and completed his studies as lieutenant constructor of railways and bridges. During the World War I, he served in Serbia, Bosnia, Galicia, and finally on the Soča Front (Isonzo Front). The wartime service left him with tuberculosis and he retired in 1919 with the rank of captain.

He pursued further studies in electrical engineering at the Technical Institute in Vienna, and completed the degree of engineering (in rocket sciences, ed.) in 1919.

He spent the last years of his life writing the book that dealt with the problems of conquering space. He outlived its publication by only 2 months. His illness progressed rapidly after the publication, and he died on 27 August, 1929, at the age of 36.

The work was promoted extensively and was soon reprinted. It was the first work on space travel in German language to be translated into English. An abridged version was published in the American magazine Science Wonder Stories. Six years later it was also translated and published in Russian.

The public received the book as a delightful introduction into the problems of space travel, written in a way that was accessible to a mass audience. The book was based on works by contemporary researchers, such as H. Oberth, Max Valier, W. Hohmann and F. von Hoefft, R. Goddard and K. W. E. Tsiolkovsky, who were all mentioned in Potočnik's historical review of books dealing with space travel.

The Problem of Space Travel: The Rocket Motor differed from other works in the author's original starting point. This was reflected in the composition and treatment of the material, as well as in Potočnik's clearly expressed stance on the cardinal problems of cosmonautics. He took the work of other authors, transformed them into his own stream of thought and organized them in a way, that enabled many problems of space conquest to be seen from different aspects, yet as a whole. The book not only introduces the reader to the problems of space travel, but it also contains an obvious educational element. That is why it may be considered as the first textbook on cosmonautics. The book not only provided answers for people who were wondering whether it were technically possible to leave earth and return to it, but also gave insights into organization of life in space and activities of people in the weightless state and vacuum, about special features of flying to other celestial bodies, including the start of the flight from the Earth orbit, the possibilities of using atomic and ionic motors in space flight. One hundred illustrations, unrivalled in literature on space at the time, contributed to the more active perception of what had been read.

Among Potočnik's readers there were at least two who had dedicated their life to practical cosmonautics. The first was Werner von Braun, technical director of the project to build the first long-range ballistic missile in the world, A 4 (V-2). He was also leading the project of building the first American carrier rocket Saturn, which enabled the landing of the first people on the moon. The second is Mikhail Klavdievich Tikhonravov, who constructed the first Soviet hybrid fueled rocket, that had a successful test flight on August 17, 1933. Later he was an associate of Sergey Pavlovich Korolyov, the chief constructor of the first Soviet carrier rockets that enabled pioneering achievements in the field of cosmonautics in the first decade of its history (1957 - 1967).

In his dissertation, Werner von Braun relied greatly on Potočnik's book and also included it in his bibliography. M. K. Tikhonravov possessed a Russian translation of the book, and used it extensively, as evidenced by the great number of notes on the margins.

A comparison of Potočnik's book with its predecessors and contemporaries has led to a new insight in Potočnik's expertise and an appreciation of his unique contribution to the development of theoretical cosmonautics. The new element in his ponderings is that he directed cosmonautics to the research and conquest of our own planet. The other pioneers of cosmonautics saw the main goal of this branch of science in the expansion of humankind "throughout space". Potočnik sought at least initially to use space technology exclusively for the good of our own planet: rocket aviation, which would enable travelling on Earth with almost cosmic velocities, and a multifunctional station in Earth's orbit, which would observe every event on the planet and direct life on it - those were the first two cornerstones that Potočnik felt had to be conquered in the development of cosmonautics. Nobody before him had defined this condition so clearly and precisely.

If we summarize the results of the theoretical research that took place from the end of the 1890ies until the end of the 1930ies, we find that K. E. Tsiolkovsky, H. Oberth, F. A. Zander and O. G.  Shargei (Yu. V. Kondratyuk) shaped the scientific perceptions of the role of space station in man's conquest of space, as well as the perceptions of the multi-functionality and basic structure of the stations and the use of natural resources in space.

The end of the 1930ies marked the age of the constructional development in the history of the idea of the space station. The first to present a concrete project for a space station was Herman Potočnik. His writings included which were scattered throughout the publications of his predecessors: the system for maintaining life support functions, which predicted the creation of a closed ecological circle and the regulation of the atmosphere's composition; helium devices which would transform the energy of the sun's rays into electricity; the stages of cosmonauts' exit from the station into open space; space suit design; an individual autonomous vehicle for the movement of cosmonauts in open space; the special features of everyday life in the weightless state; creating artificial gravity; the assembly of the station in orbit out of individual segments; the station as an "observation tower", a storage area for rocket propellant and a space port ... All of these and some other ideas were set down in Potočnik's work. But in his book they took on new lease on life, they became the object and product of engineering creativity; they were shaped into a realistic construction, suitable for use in weightlessness and vacuum. It can be said without exaggeration that Potočnik's drawing of an inhabited space station, together with a description of its construction, helped establish the psychological transition in the consciousness of people from earth- to space architecture. It is because of this, that we can unreservedly call him the father of space architecture.

Returning to the question of Potočniks priorities, we must acknowledge that he did not discover” either the geosynchronous orbit or the artificial geostationary satellite per se. But his indubitable contribution is that he recognized the advantages of such an orbit and satellite as the solution to the problem of communication in space and observation of the earth from outer space.


Potočniks book  is probably  one  of the earliest  on the subject of space biology and medicine.  By restating some basic facts about the influence of too much weight and weightlessness (in German literature this had already been covered by H. Oberth  and  M. Valier  before  him)  on  the  organism  in space  flight, Potočnik went further. He was the first to pay attention to the reduction in muscle mass in weightlessness and the necessity of special exercises to keep the muscles in a normal state.


Potočnik can undoubtedly be counted as one of the founders of aeronautics. His concepts were first taken seriously by the amateur rocketry movement in Germany, the Verein fur Raumschiffahrt (VIR-"Spaceflight Society"), centred on Hermann Oberth and his associates. In its Russian edition, the book may also have influenced Sergey Korolev's circle.


Potočnik's book described geostationary satellites, first put forward by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, and discussed communication between them and the ground using radio, but fell short of the idea of using satellites for mass broadcasting and as telecommunication relays, which were later developed by Arthur C. Clarke in his Wireless World article of 1945. The wheel-shaped space station served as an inspiration for further development by Werner von Braun (also a former VIR member) in 1952. Von Braun saw orbiting space stations as a stepping stone to travel to other planets. In 1968, Stanley Kubick's groundbreaking film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, depicted such a role for "Space Station V".


When reviewing the projects for a space station at the end of the 1940ies and into the 1950ies, it is evident that H. Potočniks observation tower was the criterion for the architectural style in weightlessness. His sound engineering plan for a space station was the ever.  It will continue to capture the creative imagination of space constructors, while his book will continue to enrich the libraries of space literature fans as a textbook on cosmonautics and as a classical work that is never out of date.


T.N.Zhelnina, Foreword I to H. Noordung Potočnik, The Problem of Space Travel - The Rocket Motor.

edited by Aleksandra Ceferin