Hermann Noordung's space station habitat wheel

The eccentric engineer: Herman Potocnik and his forgotten Space Station

Image credit: Nasa/Wikipedia

This edition of Eccentric Engineer tells the story of Herman Potocnik’s forgotten Space Station.

No-one is quite sure why Herman Potočnik took the nickname Hermann Noordung, although some suggest he derived it from the German ordnung (‘order’), adding the initial ‘n’ to mean ‘without order’. He might have more accurately been nicknamed ‘without recognition’, for Potočnik is the great space engineer no one seems to have heard of.

Herman Potočnik was born into a wealthy military family in the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1892 and grew up in Maribor, now the second largest city in Slovenia. He got a place at the technical military academy in Mödling in Lower Austria, and graduated there as a military engineer, specialising in bridges and railways. The military might have been his life were it not for the First World War. While serving in the Balkans in 1914 he contracted the tuberculosis that would dog the rest of his life; it did, however, get him pensioned off from the army.

Unable to work due to his illness, he went to live with his brother Adolf in Vienna, where he decided to dedicate himself to the new discipline of rocket science. Having received a doctorate in mechanical and electrical engineering from the University of Technology in Vienna, he began work on his one and only book: ‘The Problem of Space Travel – The Rocket Motor’. Published in 1928 (but with the date printed 1929 by the publisher to make it look more up-to-date), Potočnik’s book wasn’t the first to discuss rocket travel in space. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky had begun that journey in 1903, applying real physics to the gun-launched spacecraft of Jules Verne’s 1865 novel ‘From the Earth to the Moon’. It did, though, contain one radical idea – an image that has come to represent our desire to step into the unknown.

Perhaps the most well-known image in all of space travel (beside the Moon landing) is the sequence from Stanley Kubrick’s ‘2001 A Space Odyssey’ where we see the magnificent rotating space station hanging above the Earth as a Pan Am shuttle approaches. This was Herman Potočnik’s contribution.

Although, again, this was not the first time a space station had been imagined, Potočnik’s was something new. Described in detail over 188 pages and in 100 of his own hand-drawn illustrations, he envisioned not a temporary capsule, but a home in space with all the conveniences of Earth. His station would consist of three parts – a habitat wheel, a machine room and an observatory, all in geostationary orbit above the Earth, its position maintained by momentum wheels and thrusters.

The 30-metre habitat wheel would rotate around its centre once every eight seconds, providing artificial gravity for those inside. It would be powered by a concave central mirror that acted as a sunlight collector for a solar power plant, and was divided into a mess hall, laboratories, kitchen, laundry room, darkroom, study areas, workshops and sleeping bays. He goes on to describe methodically how to overcome the problems of constant light, massive heating differentials, water supply and oxygen recycling.

The habitat wheel would be attached to two other components by umbilicals – an observatory and a machine room – providing it and the main habitat wheel with common mechanical and electrical systems. The observatory would have no artificial gravity, so zero- and low-G experiments could take place there. He suggested the crew could communicate with Earth via heliograph.

Finally, he suggests how to construct spacesuits for people building the station and the craft to get them there. From here, he lets his imagination run free, hypothesising giant space mirrors to focus the Sun’s power back on Earth, imagines huge space telescopes free from the blurring effects of the atmosphere, as well as worrying about the potential for the militarisation of space.

Potočnik died of pneumonia the year after the publication of his book in 1929, at the age of 36. The text was only translated into English by Nasa in 1999. Others were inspired by his work before then. Wernher von Braun suggested a space wheel based on Potočnik’s ideas in Collier’s Weekly in 1951, but despite some interest from Nasa, no practical research was commissioned.

The only hint of his influence on 20th-century astronautics perhaps comes back in that famous sequence from ‘2001’, where the wonderful space wheel he imagined floats into view to the accompaniment of Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube, written in the city where Potočnik dreamed and died.

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