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Herman Potocnik

Herman Potočnik Noordung

Herman Potočnik (pseudonym Hermann Noordung) (December 12, 1892 - August 27, 1929) was a Slovenian rocket engineer and pioneer of astronautics. He is chiefly remembered for his work addressing the long-term habitation of space.

Potočnik was born in Pola, southern Istria, Austria-Hungary (now Pula Croatia). His family originated from Slovenj Gradec and Vitanje, Slovenia.

The meaning of his German-like pseudonym Noordung is still a mystery, but some sugest that he used it to show the problems of chaos (German: Ordnung, "order"; ordunga in Slovenian). Assuming that the initial "N" may have been intended to mean negation, the name would mean "without order".

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 crucibles for glass-making and a daughter of a well known wine merchant and local councillor Jožef Kokošinek from Maribor. When his 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. 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. Becoming an engineer, 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.

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 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 calculated its geostationary orbit. The book was translated into Russian in early 1935, Slovene in 1986 (by the Slovenska matica), and English in 1999 (by NASA).

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 introduced the first full concept of geostationary communications satellites (first put forward by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky and famously 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.

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 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.

A proposal was made in the late 1990s to name the International Space Station after him, but was not taken up.

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