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Herman Potocnik

Herman Potocnik

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Herman Potočnik (December 22, 1892 - August 27, 1929) was an Austro-Hungarian rocket engineer and pioneer of cosmonautics (astronautics
Astronautics, and related astronautical engineering, is the theory and practice of navigation beyond the Earth's atmosphere. In other words, it is the science and technology of space flight....

). He is chiefly remembered for his work addressing the long-term human habitation of space.

Early life

Potočnik was born in Pola
Pula is the largest city in Istria County, Croatia, situated at the southern tip of the Istria peninsula, with a population of 62,080 .Like the rest of the region, it is known for its mild climate, smooth sea, and unspoiled nature. The city has a long tradition of winemaking, fishing,...

, southern Istria
Istria , formerly Histria , is the largest peninsula in the Adriatic Sea. The peninsula is located at the head of the Adriatic between the Gulf of Trieste and the Bay of Kvarner...

, Austria-Hungary
Austria-Hungary , more formally known as the Kingdoms and Lands Represented in the Imperial Council and the Lands of the Holy Hungarian Crown of Saint Stephen, was a constitutional monarchic union between the crowns of the Austrian Empire and the Kingdom of Hungary in...

 (now Pula, Croatia
Croatia , officially the Republic of Croatia , is a unitary democratic parliamentary republic in Europe at the crossroads of the Mitteleuropa, the Balkans, and the Mediterranean. Its capital and largest city is Zagreb. The country is divided into 20 counties and the city of Zagreb. Croatia covers ...

). His birth is recorded by birth register, which is kept in archive in Pazin
Pazin is the administrative seat of Istria County in Croatia. The town has a population of 4,986 , the total Pazin municipality population is 9,227...

. His family originated from Slovenj Gradec
Slovenj Gradec
Slovenj Gradec is a town and a municipality in northern Slovenia. It is part of the historic Lower Styria region, since 2005 it belongs to the NUTS-3 statistical region of Carinthia...

 and Vitanje
Vitanje is a small town and a municipality in northeastern Slovenia. It lies on the Hudinja river, to the north of Celje. Traditionally the area was part of the Lower Styria region. The municipality is now included in the Savinja statistical region...

, both in Slovenia
Slovenia , officially the Republic of Slovenia , is a country in Central and Southeastern Europe touching the Alps and bordering the Mediterranean. Slovenia borders Italy to the west, Croatia to the south and east, Hungary to the northeast, and Austria to the north, and also has a small portion of...


The meaning of his German-like
German language
German is a West Germanic language, related to and classified alongside English and Dutch. With an estimated 90 – 98 million native speakers, German is one of the world's major languages and is the most widely-spoken first language in the European Union....

 pseudonym Noordung is still a mystery, but some suggest that he used it to show the problems of chaos
Chaos theory
Chaos theory is a field of study in mathematics, with applications in several disciplines including physics, economics, biology, and philosophy. Chaos theory studies the behavior of dynamical systems that are highly sensitive to initial conditions, an effect which is popularly referred to as the...

 (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
Zgornji Razbor
Zgornji Razbor is a settlement in the Slovenj Gradec municipality in northern Slovenia. The area was traditionally part of Styria. The entire municipality is now included in the Carinthia statistical region....

 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
Austro-Hungarian Navy
The Austro-Hungarian Navy was the naval force of Austria-Hungary. Its official name in German was Kaiserliche und Königliche Kriegsmarine , abbreviated as k.u.k. Kriegsmarine....

 harbour of Pula. His mother Minka was born February 7, 1854. She was a descendant of Czech
Czech people
Czechs, or Czech people are a western Slavic people of Central Europe, living predominantly in the Czech Republic. Small populations of Czechs also live in Slovakia, Austria, the United States, the United Kingdom, Chile, Argentina, Canada, Germany, Russia and other countries...

 immigrants, manufacturers of crucibles for glass-making and a daughter of a well known wine merchant and local councillor Jožef Kokošinek from Maribor
Maribor is the second largest city in Slovenia with 157,947 inhabitants . Maribor is also the largest and the capital city of Slovenian region Lower Styria and the seat of the Municipality of Maribor....

, later also Vitanje
Vitanje is a small town and a municipality in northeastern Slovenia. It lies on the Hudinja river, to the north of Celje. Traditionally the area was part of the Lower Styria region. The municipality is now included in the Savinja statistical region...

. Father Jožef in 1866 participated in the second Battle of Vis
Battle of Lissa (1866)
The Battle of Lissa took place on 20 July 1866 in the Adriatic Sea near the Dalmatian island of Lissa and was a decisive victory for an outnumbered Austrian Empire force over a superior Italian force...

, where Austro-Hungarian Navy under command of von Tegetthoff
Wilhelm von Tegetthoff
Wilhelm von Tegetthoff was an Austrian admiral. Considered one of the prominent naval commanders of the 19th century, Tegetthoff was known for his innovative tactics as well as his inspirational leadership....

 defeated Royal Italian Navy
Regia Marina
The Regia Marina dates from the proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy in 1861 after Italian unification...

 commanded by Count di Persano
Carlo di Persano
Count Carlo Pellion di Persano was an Italian admiral and politician, who was commander of the Regia Marina fleet at the Battle of Lissa....

. Jožef was later a general
A general officer is an officer of high military rank, usually in the army, and in some nations, the air force. The term is widely used by many nations of the world, and when a country uses a different term, there is an equivalent title given....

 in Austro-Hungarian Army
Austro-Hungarian Army
The Austro-Hungarian Army was the ground force of the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy from 1867 to 1918. It was composed of three parts: the joint army , the Austrian Landwehr , and the Hungarian Honvédség .In the wake of fighting between the...


When Herman's father died in 1894, his mother moved the family to Maribor
Maribor is the second largest city in Slovenia with 157,947 inhabitants . Maribor is also the largest and the capital city of Slovenian region Lower Styria and the seat of the Municipality of 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
Hranice may refer to several towns in the Czech Republic:* Hranice , town in Moravia; see: Hranice * Hranice , town in northern Bohemia; see: Hranice u Aše...

 (Mährisch-Weißkirchen) in Moravia
Moravia is a historical region in Central Europe in the east of the Czech Republic, and one of the former Czech lands, together with Bohemia and Silesia. It takes its name from the Morava River which rises in the northwest of the region...

. 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
Mödling is the capital of the Austrian district of the same name located approximately 14 km south of Vienna.The settlement dates back to the Neolithic. In medieval times, the town was the residence of a branch of the Babenberger family, as a result of which it received the nickname...

 in Lower Austria (Niederösterreich) near Vienna
Vienna is the capital and largest city of the Republic of Austria and one of the nine states of Austria. Vienna is Austria's primary city, with a population of about 1.723 million , and is by far the largest city in Austria, as well as its cultural, economic, and political centre...

 and graduated as an engineers second lieutenant. His specialization was building of railways and bridges.

During the First World War
World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...

 he served in Galicia, Serbia
Serbia , officially the Republic of Serbia , is a landlocked country located at the crossroads of Central and Southeast Europe, covering the southern part of the Carpathian basin and the central part of the Balkans...

 and Bosnia
Bosnia and Herzegovina
Bosnia and Herzegovina , sometimes called Bosnia-Herzegovina or simply Bosnia, is a country in Southern Europe, on the Balkan Peninsula. Bordered by Croatia to the north, west and south, Serbia to the east, and Montenegro to the southeast, Bosnia and Herzegovina is almost landlocked, except for the...

 and in 1915 he was promoted to the rank of First Lieutenant
First Lieutenant
First lieutenant is a military rank and, in some forces, an appointment.The rank of lieutenant has different meanings in different military formations , but the majority of cases it is common for it to be sub-divided into a senior and junior rank...

 (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
Tuberculosis, MTB, or TB is a common, and in many cases lethal, infectious disease caused by various strains of mycobacteria, usually Mycobacterium tuberculosis. Tuberculosis usually attacks the lungs but can also affect other parts of the body...

 that he got during the war. He started to study electrical engineering
Electrical engineering
Electrical engineering is a field of engineering that generally deals with the study and application of electricity, electronics and electromagnetism. The field first became an identifiable occupation in the late nineteenth century after commercialization of the electric telegraph and electrical...

 in the mechanical engineering
Mechanical engineering
Mechanical engineering is a discipline of engineering that applies the principles of physics and materials science for analysis, design, manufacturing, and maintenance of mechanical systems. It is the branch of engineering that involves the production and usage of heat and mechanical power for the...

 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
Space technology
Space technology is technology that is related to entering, and retrieving objects or life forms from space."Every day" technologies such as weather forecasting, remote sensing, GPS systems, satellite television, and some long distance communications systems critically rely on space infrastructure...

. Owing to chronic illness, he did not find a job or marry, but lived with his brother Adolf in Vienna.

The book

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
Berlin is the capital city of Germany and is one of the 16 states of Germany. With a population of 3.45 million people, Berlin is Germany's largest city. It is the second most populous city proper and the seventh most populous urban area in the European Union...

. 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
Space station
A space station is a spacecraft capable of supporting a crew which is designed to remain in space for an extended period of time, and to which other spacecraft can dock. A space station is distinguished from other spacecraft used for human spaceflight by its lack of major propulsion or landing...

 in detail and was the first man to calculate the geostationary orbit
Geostationary orbit
A geostationary orbit is a geosynchronous orbit directly above the Earth's equator , with a period equal to the Earth's rotational period and an orbital eccentricity of approximately zero. An object in a geostationary orbit appears motionless, at a fixed position in the sky, to ground observers...

, 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. Potočnik expressed strong doubts of the potentially destructive military use of these fresh discoveries.

The book was translated into Russian
Russian language
Russian is a Slavic language used primarily in Russia, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. It is an unofficial but widely spoken language in Ukraine, Moldova, Latvia, Turkmenistan and Estonia and, to a lesser extent, the other countries that were once constituent republics...

 in early 1935, Slovene in 1986 (by the Slovenska matica
Slovenska matica
Slovenska matica , also known as Matica slovenska, is the second-oldest publishing house in Slovenia, founded in the 19th century as an institution for the scholarly and cultural progress of Slovenes...

), English in 1999 (by NASA
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration is the agency of the United States government that is responsible for the nation's civilian space program and for aeronautics and aerospace research...

) 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
Wonder Stories
Wonder Stories was an early American science fiction magazine which was published under several titles from 1929 to 1955. It was founded by Hugo Gernsback in 1929 after he had lost control of his first science fiction magazine, Amazing Stories, when his media company Experimenter Publishing went...

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
Verein für Raumschiffahrt
The Verein für Raumschiffahrt was a German amateur rocket association prior to World War II that included members outside of Germany...

(VfR - "Spaceflight Society"), centered on Hermann Oberth
Hermann Oberth
Hermann Julius Oberth was an Austro-Hungarian-born German physicist and engineer. He is considered one of the founding fathers of rocketry and astronautics.- Early life :...

 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
Konstantin Tsiolkovsky
Konstantin Eduardovich Tsiolkovsky was an Imperial Russian and Soviet rocket scientist and pioneer of the astronautic theory. Along with his followers the German Hermann Oberth and the American Robert H. Goddard, he is considered to be one of the founding fathers of rocketry and astronautics...

) 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
Arthur C. Clarke
Sir Arthur Charles Clarke, CBE, FRAS was a British science fiction author, inventor, and futurist, famous for his short stories and novels, among them 2001: A Space Odyssey, and as a host and commentator in the British television series Mysterious World. For many years, Robert A. Heinlein,...

 in his Wireless World
Wireless World
Wireless World was the pre-eminent British magazine for radio and electronics enthusiasts. It was one of the very few "informal" journals which were tolerated as a professional expense.- History :...

article of 1945). The wheel-shaped space station served as an inspiration for further development by Wernher von Braun
Wernher von Braun
Wernher Magnus Maximilian, Freiherr von Braun was a German rocket scientist, aerospace engineer, space architect, and one of the leading figures in the development of rocket technology in Nazi Germany during World War II and in the United States after that.A former member of the Nazi party,...

 (another former VfR member) in 1952. Von Braun saw orbiting space stations as a stepping stone to travel to other planets. In 1968, Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick
Stanley Kubrick was an American film director, writer, producer, and photographer who lived in England during most of the last four decades of his career...

's ground-breaking film, 2001: A Space Odyssey
2001: A Space Odyssey (film)
2001: A Space Odyssey is a 1968 epic science fiction film produced and directed by Stanley Kubrick, and co-written by Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke, partially inspired by Clarke's short story The Sentinel...

, depicted such a role for "Space Station V".


Potočnik died of pneumonia
Pneumonia is an inflammatory condition of the lung—especially affecting the microscopic air sacs —associated with fever, chest symptoms, and a lack of air space on a chest X-ray. Pneumonia is typically caused by an infection but there are a number of other causes...

 at the age of 36 in great poverty in
Vienna, Austria
Austria , officially the Republic of Austria , is a landlocked country of roughly 8.4 million people in Central Europe. It is bordered by the Czech Republic and Germany to the north, Slovakia and Hungary to the east, Slovenia and Italy to the south, and Switzerland and Liechtenstein to the...

, 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, but nothing about his work about space.


  • Streets in Graz
    The more recent population figures do not give the whole picture as only people with principal residence status are counted and people with secondary residence status are not. Most of the people with secondary residence status in Graz are students...

     and Ljubljana
    Ljubljana is the capital of Slovenia and its largest city. It is the centre of the City Municipality of Ljubljana. It is located in the centre of the country in the Ljubljana Basin, and is a mid-sized city of some 270,000 inhabitants...

     now bear his name.
  • A proposal was made in the late 1990s to name the International Space Station
    International Space Station
    The International Space Station is a habitable, artificial satellite in low Earth orbit. The ISS follows the Salyut, Almaz, Cosmos, Skylab, and Mir space stations, as the 11th space station launched, not including the Genesis I and II prototypes...

     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
    University of Maribor
    The University of Maribor is the second university in Slovenia, established in 1975. It currently has 17 faculties.-History:The university's roots reach back to 1859, when a theological seminary was established with the encouragement of Maribor bishop and patriot Anton Martin Slomšek...

    , celebrating the 70th anniversary of the first printing of his famous book.
  • Asteroid
    Asteroids are a class of small Solar System bodies in orbit around the Sun. They have also been called planetoids, especially the larger ones...

     19612 Noordung
    19612 Noordung
    19612 Noordung is a main-belt asteroid discovered on July 17, 1999 at Črni Vrh Observatory. It is named after Herman Potočnik Noordung, a Slovene rocket engineer and pioneer of cosmonautics.- External links :...

    , found in 1999 at Črni Vrh Observatory
    Crni Vrh Observatory
    The Črni Vrh Observatory is located in Western Slovenia, close to the settlement Črni Vrh, near the town of Idrija. The current observatory was built in 1985, and is at an altitude of 730 metres...

    , is named after him.
  • In 2006, "Spominsko središče Hermana Potočnika Noordunga" (English: Herman Potočnik Noordung Memorial Centre) was built in Vitanje
    Vitanje is a small town and a municipality in northeastern Slovenia. It lies on the Hudinja river, to the north of Celje. Traditionally the area was part of the Lower Styria region. The municipality is now included in the Savinja statistical region...

    , Slovenia.
  • There is an activity going on to bring up a statue of Herman Potočnik in his birth place Pula.

See also

  • Timeline of space exploration
    Timeline of space exploration
    This is a timeline of space exploration including notable achievements and first accomplishments in humanity's physical exploration of outer space.-Prior to 1942:-1942–1957:-1957–1961:-1961–1969:-1970–1980:-1981–present:...

  • Rotating wheel space station
    Rotating wheel space station
    A rotating wheel space station is a hypothetical wheel-shaped space station that could create artificial gravity by rotating. If the station were rotated, inertia and the centripetal force would cause objects to press against the outer rim of the "wheel"; in the rotating frame of reference of the...

  • Noordung (NSK)
    Noordung (NSK)
    Noordung are a Slovenian theatre group; founded in 1983 under the name of Scipion Nasice Sisters Theater they were, in 1984, a founding member of the Neue Slowenische Kunst collective...

External links