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)
artwork (c) Frank R. Paul estate
image: Cover by Frank R. Paul for Aug. 1929 Science Wonder
Stories, illustrating "The Problems of Space Flying" by Capt. Hermann Noordung.
Ron Miller said this about this work: "The first color painting of a space station ever published in the U.S. depicts Hermann Noordung's design of parabolic mirrors that provide power
and a cylindrical observatory." (Space Art, 1978, Starlog Publ., p. 136)
Lester Del Rey had this to say: "Paul has often been accused of being unable to draw human figures and faces well, and most of his science-fiction illustrations ... seem to bear this out.
His human beings appear to be all alike. The clothes of the men are often right from the popular idea of what an engineer in the field might wear, from boots to bush jackets. Yet I have
seen a few later paintings by Paul that show considerable skill at portraiture; and in some of the covers (as in the August 1929 Science Wonder Stories cover...), the human heads were
no more stylized than the ones on many other magazine covers of the day. Generally, he did not make any great effort to do careful portraits of people - that was not the center of
interest for the readers. The machinery and backgrounds, which were the center of interest, were executed with great care and skill and with a surprising variety of imagination."
Fantastic Science-Fiction Art, 1926-1954, 1975, Ballantine Books, N.Y.
image: Paul's skillfully executed space station re-appeared on the cover of the Summer 1968 issue of
Famous Science Fiction:
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
Paul also re-visited this design in an illustration for Hugo Gernsback's
Forecast magazine. (This image was reproduced with commentary, auction catalog, The Sam Moskowitz Collection of Science Fiction, 1999, Sotheby's, New York, pp. 66-
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
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:
Agreeing that "Yes, Noordung is a difficult case," Willy Ley answered the
seven questions in a letter to me dated 3 May 1963:
- Who was Noordung?
- Why did he try to conceal his identity?
- Is he known to have written anything other than this book?
- Where did he get his training?
- What happened to him after he wrote the book?
- What contacts did he have with other rocket and astronautical pioneers?
- How well did his book do and what influence did it have on the development
of astronautical thinking in prewar Germany?
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:
PROBLEM VOENJE PO VESOLJU
- 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.
- 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.
- Nothing else by him is known.
- See answer to # 1.
- He seems to have been fairly old when he wrote the book, presumably he
died a few years later.
- Virtually none.
- 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.
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!
Frederick I. Ordway III
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.
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.
Hermann Noordung, Das Problem der Befahrung des Weltraums: Der
Raketen Motor (Berlin: Richard Carl Schmidt & Co, 1929).
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
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.
All correspondence referred to in this foreword is located in the
Ordway Collection, Center Library and Archives, U.S. Space & Rocket
Center, Huntsville, Alabama.
Herman Potocnic, Problem Voenje po Vesolju (Ljubljana: Slovenska
Ron Miller, "Herman Potocnik alias Hermann Noordung,"
of the British Interplanetary Society 45 (July 1992), "Pioneering Rocketry
and Spaceflight" issue, Part I:295-6.
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