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Herman Potocnik

Herman Potočnik (pseudonym Hermann Noordung) (December 12, 1892 - August 27, 1929) was a Slovenian pioneer of astronautics and cosmonautics[?], and rocket engineer.

Potočnik was born in Pola[?], southern Istria, Austria-Hungary (now Pula[?], Croatia). His family originates from Slovenj Gradec[?] and Vitanje[?], Slovenia, although Austrians adopt him as their own, but they recognize his Slovenian origin.

His father Jožef was born in 1841 in 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 Pola. His mother Minka was born February 7, 1854. She was a descendant of Czech immigrants, manufacturers of melting-pots for glass and a daughter of a well known wine merchant and a councillor Jožef Kokošinek from Maribor. Father died in 1894 and his widow moved with four children 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. In Maribor Potočnik attended primary school. Afterward he went to the military secondary schools in Fischau[?] and Hranice[?] (Mährisch-Weißkirchen) in Moravia. He had an uncle Heinrich, who was a major general and he probably enabled him schooling 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 1st World War he served in Galicia, Serbia and Bosnia and in 1915 he was promoted to the rank of a 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, he got during the war. He started to study electrical engineering in the mechanical engineering department of the University of Technology in Vienna. Becoming an engineer, specialist in a rocket technics in 1925 he entirely devoted himself to the problems of a rocket science and space technology. Owing to hard illness he did not find a job or married but he stayed with his brother Adolf in Vienna.

In the end of 1928 he published in German his sole book Das Problem der Befahrung des Weltraums - der Raketen-motor (English The Problem of Space Travel - The Rocket Motor, Slovenian Problem vožnje po Vesolju - Raketni motor) in Berlin. A publisher Richard Carl Schmidt printed the year 1929 as a publishing date, probably from a pure businesslike motives so this date remained. In this book Potočnik spread a plan for a breakthrough into space and for a residence of mankind in it. He conceived a space station in a detail and calculated its geostationary orbit. The book has 188 pages and 100 illustrations. It was reprinted and translated into Slovene in 1986 by the Slovenska matica[?]. In 1984 Vojko Kogej found a German reprint of this book from 1938 in the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, DDR among more than 6 million fascicles.

With his many ideas he became one of the founders of the astronautics. His ideas were first taken seriously only by Hermann Oberth and his co-workers, and later by Wernher von Braun and Arthur Charles Clarke. Viennese technicians misjudged him as an unreal fantast. His book influenced on the German rocket circle (von Braun) and most probably on the Russian one (Sergei Pavlovich Korolev). The book had already been translated into Russian at the beginning of 1935 in Moscow and into English in 1995 by NASA. In 1999 Kogej found a Russian edition at the Russian State Library in Moscow. Clarke wrote on January 15, 1993 to Frederick I. Ordway III:


This afternoon just as I was leaving for the Otters Club to beat up the locals at table tennis, I noticed two young European backpackers hovering around my gate. Stopped to find who they were, and discovered they were a couple of Slovenes, who'd hiked here to deliver this book to me!! Do you know it? I've never seen the original, and the illustrations are fascinating. Though of course, I was familiar with some of them, notably the space station design.

Potočnik's book introduced the first full concept of geostationary telecommunication satellites, which originates from the ideas of Konstantin Eduardovitch Tsiolkovsky. The book later influenced such artistic works as Clarke's one in the magazine Wireless World[?], 1945 and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, 1968. A similar concept of a space station design has been proposed by von Braun in 1953.

Tsiolkovsky's, Potočnik's and Clarke's visions of geostationary telecommunications satellites were made a reality in 1962 with the launch of Telstar. American geostationary telecommunication satellite Syncom 2 in 1963 took exactly the same position, which had been calculated by Potočnik.

Potočnik died of pneumonia in great poverty at the age of 36 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. One street in Graz now bears his name.

In 1999 an international memorial symposium of two days about his life and work was held at the University of Maribor, celebrating the 70th anniversary of the first printing of his famous book.

Von Braun at many occasions had stressed what is written also in French encyclopedia Larousse[?] that Potočnik was his teacher in making of V1 and V2 rockets and afterwards of other space vehicles.

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