by Frederick I. Ordway III

I have read the first full English translation of Noordung's Das Problem der Befahrung des Weltraums with a sense of both relief and satisfaction--relief that the book is finally accessible to the English reading public and satisfaction that the project was achieved in the first place. Like most efforts that are ultimately realized, from my perspective the Noordung translation had quite a history. I first became aware of Noordung's work through the pages of some old pulps. In my early teens I had begun to collect science fiction magazines and books as well as nonfiction works on rocketry, the Moon and planets, and the possibility of voyages to them. In fact, I became and continue to be a collector. (1)

Within a few years of beginning my pulp collection, I located some early Hugo Gernsback edited Science Wonders Stories that contained translations by Francis M. Currier (2) of portions from Noordung's original German language book. (3) Particularly exciting was a full color painting of Noordung's space station array on the cover of the August 1929 number by well known science fiction illustrator Frank R. Paul. That image stuck in my mind for decades.

The years passed and my only further exposure to Noordung was an occasional reference to him in my evolving non-fiction collection of books on rocketry and spaceflight. (4) Then, during the summer of 1956, while employed at Republic Aviation Corporation's Guided Missile Division, I began to ponder the feasibility of arranging for Noordung to be translated and published in the United States. Accordingly, on 23 July I wrote to the German publisher Richard Carl Schmidt & Co. in Berlin. Within a couple of weeks I received a reply from the company's head office in Braunschweig to the effect that "We are in pri[n]ciple ready to assist your project." The letter went on to say that "Before having a final decision please give us the ad[d]ress of Mr. Hugo Gernsba[c]k, with whom we should like to have priorly a contact". (5)

As it happened, I had anticipated this requirement and was already in touch with Gernsback at his Radio Electronics magazine office located at 154 West 14th Street in New York City. I had hoped that a full translation of Noordung might have been made by Currier even though Gernsback had only published portions. After some correspondence and telephone conversations, he advised me on 5 July 1956 that the original English translation ". . . is no longer available, as we have no records going that far back at the present time." He went on to explain that ". . . I have talked to several people about this, but so far have not been able to get any further information on it." We later got together for lunch at which time he reconfirmed that a complete English translation did not exist; in fact, he had no surviving files on the matter. This meant that we would have either to make do with the extracts published in the old Science Wonder Stories or have the book translated anew.

The month following my conversations with Hugo Gernsback, I made what turned out to be a career changing trip to Redstone Arsenal in Huntsville, Alabama, for meetings with Wernher von Braun and members of his team. Then, in December von Braun spent a couple of days with my wife and me at our home in Syosset, Long Island. It was then that arrangements were made for me to join him at Redstone. So, in February 1957, with wife, two children and collie dog appropriately name Rocket, we pulled up stakes for the move to Huntsville. Noordung was no longer a concern.

After our arrival at Redstone, life became so busy and so exciting that the Noordung project further faded from mind. In late May, we celebrated at Huntsville the first successful firing of a 1,500 mile range Jupiter from Cape Canaveral; in August a 600 mile altitude, 1,300 mile range flight of a Jupiter C three stage rocket; and in January 1958 the orbiting of America's first satellite, Explorer 1. Then, in July 1960, the von Braun team transferred to NASA as the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center, in May 1961 Alan Shepard became the first American astronaut to fly into space, and later that same month President Kennedy announced a national goal of sending astronauts to the Moon within the decade.

By the time of the Apollo announcement, five years had passed since I had begun thinking about having Noordung translated into English. A couple more years went by until, during the spring of 1963, Harry O. Ruppe who was deputy director of NASA Marshall's Future Projects Office and I began to bring the project back to life. Our first step was to write to Willy Ley in Jackson Heights, New York, an old friend and colleague from my Long Island days. In a letter of 22 April, I told him that Ruppe had begun planning the translation and that we had discussed the introduction (which we both hoped Ley would write). I added that "One thing that puzzles him [Ruppe] is the almost complete absence of information on Noordung. Apparently he made every effort to conceal his identity. He had no history of publications prior to this book and made no effort to publish further after it appeared." I then posed seven questions:

  1. Who was Noordung?
  2. Why did he try to conceal his identity?
  3. Is he known to have written anything other than this book?
  4. Where did he get his training?
  5. What happened to him after he wrote the book?
  6. What contacts did he have with other rocket and astronautical pioneers?
  7. How well did his book do and what influence did it have on the development of astronautical thinking in prewar Germany?

Agreeing that "Yes, Noordung is a difficult case," Willy Ley answered the seven questions in a letter to me dated 3 May 1963:

  1. His real name was Potocnic, first name unknown. He was a captain in the Austro-Hungarian army of World War I, and since he used the title Ingenieur it is generally assumed he was a Captain in the Engineer Corps.
  2. Two possible reasons (A) he might have felt that his real name, being Czech [see below], was a slight handicap. (B) he might have wished to indicate that he was speaking as an individual, not as an officer (albeit retired) of the armed forces, just as I have used the pen name Robert Willey for the few science fiction stories I wrote in the past, to show that this was meant to be fiction. (I did not hide behind the pen name, though, everybody knew it was me.) There is a third possibility, somewhat unkind to the gentleman. He might have wished to keep his name from the disbursing office for pensions so that he would receive his full pension in spite of outside income.
  3. Nothing else by him is known.
  4. See answer to # 1.
  5. He seems to have been fairly old when he wrote the book, presumably he died a few years later.
  6. Virtually none.
  7. His book never got beyond its first printing, it was strongly criticized by [Austrian space pioneer Guido] von Pirquet because of its errors in the tables (the one about rocket efficiency). It was one of those books where the prophetic content was not realized until much later. At the time it was new, everybody only looked at the mistakes he made.

Although Ley said in answering question No. 1 that he didn't know Potocnic's first name, a couple of years later he provided me a translation from an article on Noordung by Prof. Erich Dolezal in the Viennese magazine Universum (Vol. 33, Heft 2, 1965) to the effect that "The book [Noordung's] was one of the best of the early period, it deal[t] especially with the problem of the space station . . . supposed to be in a synchronous orbit . . . The pen name Hermann Noordung covered the Austrian (Army) Officer Hermann Potocnik who had been born in Pola [now, Pula] in 1892. His father had been a Navy staff surgeon who had been a participant in the naval battle of Lissa (1866)." Learning that Noordung had died on 27 August 1929 of a pulmonary disorder, Ley commented ". . . no wonder he [n]ever answered anything, he died during the same year his book was published."

In May 1963, Harry Ruppe began planning the translation, our artist/designer colleague Harry H.K. Lange considered either reproducing or redoing the illustrations, and I got back in touch with the Richard Carl Schmidt publishers in Germany to make final arrangements to secure for us the publication rights. Replying on 24 June 1963, the company proposed that a formal agreement be drawn up and a royalty rate established. With this reasonable response in mind, we approached the McQuiddy Publishers of Nashville and Aero Publishers, Inc. of Los Angeles regarding publishing and distributing the book. A year went by, and we got nowhere; and, ultimately, the German publisher simply refused to respond to further inquiries. Since McQuiddy and Aero understandably would not proceed without Richard Carl Schmidt's approval, we dropped all plans to Publish a translation.

All the while, Ruppe's, Lange's and my workloads at the NASA Marshall Center were increasing so we relegated the Noordung project to our inactive files. Ruppe's final notes to me echo in part Willy Ley's comments. "This guy Noordung is quite a mysterious figure. You know, usually you write a book, amongst many other things, to reap some fame. Certainly this was not one of his motives. Indeed this guy is nearly impossible to grasp. He wrote a book, he published it and then he vanished again. He is not well known prior to the book. There is nothing we know of him thereafter. He did not republish. "In a way," Ruppe continued,

he does not belong to the old pioneers and in another way he does. He is aware of the state of the art of his time. His mathematical knowledge is not too strong. He misinterprets some concepts like his efficiency considerations which were quite well discussed in [Hermann] Oberth's book a couple of years prior to his own. But on the other hand, he shows very, very capable concepts. His space station design is kind of a model well, we honestly haven't progressed very much further except for one of his quite funny mistakes, placing it in a 24 hour orbit.

And there the matter rested until 1992 when I learned that Ron Miller had obtained a copy of Noordung's book in the original Slovenian! (6) Noordung, it seems, was not Czech as Ley had surmised but rather the Slovenian Herman Potocnic born on 22 December 1892 in what is now Croatia; his mother though also Slovenian had Czech ancestors. I quickly persuaded Miller to provide a short write-up of the appearance of Noordung/Potocnic in Slovenian for a special issue of the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society being edited by Frank Winter and me. This he graciously consented to do. (7)

Some months later, Noordung/Potocnic again came to my attention with the arrival from Sri Lanka of a memorandum from Arthur C. Clarke dated 15 January 1993:


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.

I immediately sent Clarke a copy of the Miller article; and, on 17 February 1993, he acknowledged its receipt with thanks and had this to add:

Here's an incredible coincidence-a week after the Slovenes gave me their edition of Potocnik, Luis Marden of National Geographic mailed me a copy of the German edition, with dust jacket, he'd found when cleaning out his library! I'd never seen it before, and was delighted to have it. What an incredible man Potocnik must have been, perhaps in some ways quite as remarkable as Oberth.

About the time Noordung/Potocnik was reentering my life after so many years and false starts towards translation into English, I got to talking with NASA's Chief Historian Dr. Roger Launius. Once again a coincidence: he, himself, had been pondering the feasibility of NASA's sponsoring the translation and subsequent publication. I quickly loaned him my files hoping they might be of some use. In due course, under the guidance of Dr. John Dillard Hunley of the History Office, a professional translation was finally made, Dr. Ernst Stuhlinger of Huntsville agreed to critically review it, and publication subsequently was realized. Mission accomplished!


(1) Frederick I. Ordway III, "Collecting Literature in the Space and Rocket Fields," Space Education supplement to the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society 1 (September 1982): 176-82; 1 (October 1983): 279-87; and 1 (May 1984): 326-30. Also "The Ordway Aerospace Collection at the Alabama Space and Rocket Center," in Special Collections: Aeronautics and Space Flight Collections, edited by Catherine D. Scott (New York: Haworth Press, 1985), pp. 15372.

(2) Hermann Noordung, "The Problems of Space Flying," translated by Francis M. Currier Science Wonder Stories 1 (July 1929): 170-80; (August 1929): 264-72; and (September 1929): 361-368.

(3) Hermann Noordung, Das Problem der Befahrung des Weltraums: Der Raketen Motor (Berlin: Richard Carl Schmidt & Co, 1929).

(4) I learned about Noordung's space station concept not only from the old Science Wonder Stories but from reading the first edition of Willy Ley's Rockets: The Future of Travel Beyond the Stratosphere (New York: Viking, 1944), pp. 225 and 229. By the time Ley's book had been expanded into Rockets, Missiles and Space Travel (New York: Viking, 1951), Noordung had been relegated to a footnote on page 332 and a bibliographic citation on page 420. Years later, with the appearance of Rockets, Missiles, and Men in Space (New York: Viking, 1969), a couple of pages 300 and 301 were devoted to Noordung. And that's as far as Willy Ley went. Based to a large extent on Ley's limited notations, similarly brief mention of Noordung appeared in other books over the years, including some co-authored by me, e.g. Frederick I. Ordway III and Ronald C. Wakeford, International Missile and Spacecraft Guide (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1960), p. 212, and Wernher von Braun and Frederick I. Ordway III, History of Rocketry & Space Travel (New York: Crowell, 1966), p. 202 and later editions (Crowell, 1969; Crowell, 1975; and Harper & Row, 1985--the last with the title Space Travel: A History). Other authors gave Noordung the same rather spares treatment, e.g. David Baker, The History of Manned Space Flight (New York: Crown, 1981), p. 14. In 1987, Sylvia Doughty Fries and I offered a bit more--but hardly adequate--space to Noordung in our "The Space Station: From Concept to Evolving Reality," Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 12 (June 1987): 14359.

(5) All correspondence referred to in this foreword is located in the Ordway Collection, Center Library and Archives, U.S. Space & Rocket Center, Huntsville, Alabama.

(6) Herman Potocnic, Problem Voenje po Vesolju (Ljubljana: Slovenska Matica, 1986).

(7) Ron Miller, "Herman Potocnik alias Hermann Noordung," Journal of the British Interplanetary Society 45 (July 1992), "Pioneering Rocketry and Spaceflight" issue, Part I:295-6.

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