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Herman Potočnik Noordung
Born December 22, 1892(1892-12-22)
Pula, Croatia (then Austria-Hungary)
Died August 27, 1929 (aged 36)
Vienna, Austria

Herman Potočnik (pseudonym Hermann Noordung) (December 22, 1892 - August 27, 1929) was a Slovene rocket engineer and pioneer of cosmonautics (astronautics). He is chiefly remembered for his work addressing the long-term human habitation of space.


Early life

Potočnik was born in Pula, southern Istria, Austria-Hungary (now Pula, Croatia). His birth is recorded by birth register, which is kept in archive in Pazin. His family originated from Slovenj Gradec and Vitanje, both in Slovenia.

The meaning of his German-like pseudonym Noordung is still a mystery, but some suggest that he used it to show the problems of chaos (German: Ordnung, "order"; ordunga in Slovene colloquial language). Assuming that the initial "N" may have been intended to stand as a negation, the name would mean "without order" or "no order".

His father Jožef was born in 1841 in Zgornji Razbor near Slovenj Gradec and at the time of Herman's birth he served as a doctor and high navy officer in the Austro-Hungarian Navy harbour of Pula. His mother Minka was born February 7, 1854. She was a descendant of Czech immigrants, manufacturers of crucibles for glass-making and a daughter of a well known wine merchant and local councillor Jožef Kokošinek from Maribor, later also Vitanje. Father Jožef in 1866 participated in the second Battle of Vis, where Austro-Hungarian Navy under command of von Tegetthoff defeated Royal Italian Navy commanded by Count di Persano. Jožef was later a general in Austro-Hungarian Army.

When Herman's father died in 1894, his mother moved the family to Maribor (at that time also officially named Marburg). Herman had two brothers Adolf and Gustav (who were both navy officers), and a sister Franci. He spent most of his childhood years in Maribor and Vitanje.

Education and military service

In Maribor Potočnik attended primary school. Afterward he went to the military secondary schools in Fischau and Hranice (Mährisch-Weißkirchen) in Moravia. His uncle Heinrich was a Major-General in the Army, and probably enabled his study at Austrian military schools. From 1910 to 1913 he studied at the technical military academy in Mödling in Lower Austria (Niederösterreich) near Vienna and graduated as an engineers second lieutenant. His specialization was building of railways and bridges.

During the World War I he served in Galicia, Serbia and Bosnia and in 1915 he was promoted to the rank of First Lieutenant (Oberleutnant). He was assigned to the southwestern front of the Soča battlefield and there he experienced a breakthrough of Austrian army to the river Piava and its retreat. In 1919 he was pensioned off from the Austrian military with the rank of Captain because of tuberculosis that he got during the war. He started to study electrical engineering in the mechanical engineering department of the University of Technology in Vienna. Being awarded a doctorate in engineering, he specialised in rocketry, and from 1925 he devoted himself entirely to the problems of a rocket science and space technology. Owing to chronic illness, he did not find a job or marry, but lived with his brother Adolf in Vienna.

The book

Description of a space station in Hermann Noordung's The Problem of Space Travel (1929).
(Legend: Achs-Körper: axle body. Aufzugschacht: elevator shaft. K: electric cable to an external observatory. Kondensatorrohre: condenser pipes. S: airlock. Treppenschacht: stairwell. Verdamfungsrohr: boiler pipe).

At the end of 1928, he published his sole book, Das Problem der Befahrung des Weltraums - der Raketen-Motor (The Problem of Space Travel - The Rocket Motor) in Berlin. The publisher, Richard Carl Schmidt, printed the year 1929 as a publishing date, probably from a purely business motive (to keep the book looking new throughout the coming year) and this date is often mistakenly given as the actual date of publication. In 188 pages and 100 handmade illustrations, Potočnik set out a plan for a breakthrough into space and the establishment of a permanent human presence there. He conceived a space station in detail and was the first man to calculate the geostationary orbit, on which the station would orbit the Earth. He described the use of orbiting spacecraft for detailed observation of the ground for peaceful and military purposes, and described how the special conditions of space could be useful for scientific experiments.[1] Potočnik expressed strong doubts of the potentially destructive military use of these fresh discoveries.

The book was translated into Russian in early 1935, Slovene in 1986 (by the Slovenska matica), English in 1999 (by NASA) and Croatian in 2004 (by Marino Fonović, published by Labin Art Press). A partial translation in English, containing most of the essential chapters, was made as early as 1929 for the American magazine Science Wonder Stories and was issued in three parts (July, August and September 1929).

With his many ideas he became one of the founders of astronautics. His concepts were first taken seriously only by the amateur rocketry movement in Germany, the Verein für Raumschiffahrt (VfR - "Spaceflight Society"), centered on Hermann Oberth and his co-workers. In its Russian edition, the book may also have influenced Sergey Korolev's circle. More locally, Viennese engineers dismissed his work as fantasy.

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 telecommunications relays (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 Wernher von Braun (another former VfR member) in 1953. Von Braun saw orbiting space stations as a stepping stone to travel to other planets. In 1968, Stanley Kubrick's ground-breaking film, 2001: A Space Odyssey, depicted such a role for "Space Station V."


Potočnik died of pneumonia at the age of 36 in great poverty, in Vienna, Austria and was buried there. An obituary notice about his death was printed in one Maribor daily newspaper, mentioning his ranks (engineers and captain), his illness and nothing about his work about space.


  • Streets in Graz and Ljubljana now bear his name.
  • A proposal was made in the late 1990s to name the International Space Station after him, but was not taken up.
  • In 1999 a two-day international memorial symposium about his life and work was held at the University of Maribor, celebrating the 70th anniversary of the first printing of his famous book.
  • Asteroid 19612 Noordung, found in 1999 at Črni Vrh Observatory, is named after him.
  • In 2006, "Spominsko središče Hermana Potočnika Noordunga" (English: Herman Potočnik Noordung Memorial Centre) was built in Vitanje, Slovenia.
  • There is an activity going on to bring up a statue of Herman Potočnik in his birth place Pula.

See also


External links



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