Since the beginning of time, mankind has considered it as an expression of its Earthly weakness and inadequacy to be bound to the Earth, to be unable to free itself from the mysterious shackles of gravity. Not without good reason then has the concept of the transcendental always been associated with the idea of weightlessness, the power "to be able freely to rise into the sky." And most people even today still take it as a dogma that it is indeed unthinkable for Earthly beings ever to be able to escape the Earth. Is this point of view really justified?

Keep in mind: just a few decades ago, the belief indelibly impressed upon us was widespread that it is foolhardy to hope that we would ever be able to speed through the air like the birds. And today! In the face of this and similar superb proofs of the capability of science and technology, should mankind not dare now to tackle the last transportation problem for which a solution still eludes us: the problem of space travel? And logically: in the last few years, the "technical dream," which to date was only the stuff of fanciful novels, has become a "technical question" examined in the dispassionate works of scholars and engineers using all the support of mathematical, physical and technical knowledge and--has been deemed solvable.


  1. Frank H. Winter, "Observatories in Space, 1920s Style," Griffith Observer 46 (Jun. 1982): 3-5; Fritz Sykora, "Pioniere der Raketentechnik aus Österreich," Blätter für Technikgeschichte 22 (1960): 189-192, 196-199; Ron Miller, "Herman Potocnik--alias Hermann Noordung," Journal of the British Interplanetary Society 45 (1992): 295-296; Harry O. Ruppe, "Noordung: Der Mann und sein Werk," Astronautik 13 (1976): 81-83; Herbert J. Pichler, "Hermann Potocnik-Noordung, 22. Dez. 1892-27 Aug. 1929," typescript from a folder on Potocnik in the National Air and Space Museum's Archives. These sources on Potocnik's life agree in the essentials but disagree in some particulars, even to the spelling of his first name, which appears as Herman (with one n) on the title page of the Slovenian edition of his book, first published in his native language in 1986. Winter and Sykora also discuss both Oberth and Pirquet. Further information about both appears in Barton C. Hacker, "The Idea of Rendezvous: From Space Station to Orbital Operations in Space-Travel Thought," Technology and Culture 15 (1974): 380-384. Other sources on Oberth's life include Hans Barth, Hermann Oberth: "Vater der Raumfahrt" (Munich: Bechtle, 1991) and John Elder, "The Experience of Hermann Oberth," as yet unpublished paper given at the 42nd Congress of the International Astronautics Federation, October 5-11, 1991, Montreal, Canada. On Pirquet's series of articles, see also Die Rakete: Offizielles Organ des Vereins für Raumschiffahrt E.V. in Deutschland 2 (1928): esp. 118, 137-140, 184, 189.
  2. Cf. Winter, "Observatories in Space," pp. 2-3; Hacker, "Idea of Rendezvous," pp. 374-375.
  3. Hacker, "Idea of Rendezvous," pp. 375-376; N.A. Rynin, Interplanetary Flight and Communication, III, #7, K.E. Tsiolkovskii, Life, Writings, and Rockets (Leningrad, 1931), trans. by Israel Program for Scientific Translations (Jerusalem: NASA TT F-646, 1971), pp. 24-25; I.A. Kol'chenko and I.V. Strazheva, "The Ideas of K.E. Tsiolkovsky on Orbital Space Stations," Essays on the History of Rocketry and Astronautics: Proceedings of the Third Through the Sixth History Symposia of the International Academy of Astronautics, ed. R. Cargill Hall (Washington, D.C.: NASA Conference Publication 2014, 1977), vol. 1, p. 171. This last work has since been reprinted as History of Rocketry and Astronautics, AAS History Series, vol. 7, pt. 1 (San Diego: Univelt, 1986).
  4. Hacker, "Idea of Rendezvous," pp. 376-377; K. E. Tsiolkovskiy (sic), "The Exploration of the Universe with Reaction Machines," in Collected Works of K.E. Tsiolkovskiy, vol. 2, Reactive Flying Machines, ed. B. N. Vorob'yev et al., trans. Faraday Translations (Washington, D.C.: NASA TT F-237, 1965), pp. 118-167, esp. 146-154; Tsiolkovskiy, "Exploration of the Universe with Reaction Machines," in Reactive Flying Machines, pp. 212-349, esp. pp. 338-346; Kol'chenko and Strazheva, "Ideas of Tsiolkovsky on Orbital Space Stations," pp. 172-174.
  5. Hacker, "Idea of Rendezvous," pp. 377-379.
  6. Hermann Oberth, Die Raketen zu den Planetenräumen (Nürnberg: Uni-Verlag, 1960; reprint of 1923 work), pp. 86-89; for a more detailed description of Oberth's ideas, see Winter, "Observatories in Space," pp. 3-4.
  7. Hermann Oberth, Ways to Spaceflight, trans. Agence Tunisienne de Public-Relations (Washington, D.C.: NASA TT F-622, 1972), pp. 477-506.
  8. "Observatories in Space," p. 4.
  9. Pp. 56, 138, 210, 247, 302, 308, 309, 351, 352, 354, 417, 478.
  10. Die Rakete 2 (Oct. 1928): 158-159.
  11. Sykora, "Pioniere der Raketentechnik," p. 198; Frank Winter, Rockets into Space (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990), pp. 25-26. In fact, Winter states, "his work was so comprehensive that no other space station study appeared until the mid-1940s."
  12. Cf. Winter, "Observatories in Space," p. 4.
  13. Willy Ley (Rockets, Missiles, and Men in Space [New York: Viking, 1968], p. 540) and others have dated Potocnik's book from 1928, but as Harry Ruppe points out ("Noordung," p. 82n) the 1929 edition of the book gives no indication that it is a second printing. Moreover, the copyright dates from 1929.
  14. Die Rakete 2 (Oct. 1928): 158-159.
  15. Ruppe, "Noordung," p. 82.
  16. As stated on the back of the title page of the 1968 edition, Rockets, Missiles, and Men of Space, which had a less extensive discussion of the author and book than the 1961 edition referred to in the narrative above and cited in the next footnote. Interestingly, the 1951 edition, also entitled Rockets, Missiles, and Space Travel (like the 1961 edition), relegated Potocnik and the discussion of his book to a footnote, where none of the criticism appeared.
  17. Rockets, Missiles, and Space Travel (New York: Viking, 1961), p. 369.
  18. Ibid., pp. 369-370, 375.
  19. Science Wonder Stories 1 (1929): 170-80, 264-72, and 361-68 (July-September issues). Photocopies in the National Air and Space Museum's archives in a folder on Potocnik; copies of the original magazine at the Library of Congress. Science Wonder Stories is not as strange a place for a translation of an engineering study to appear as the title might suggest. Gernsback (1884-1967) carried on the masthead of the new magazine the dictum, "Prophetic Fiction is the Mother of Scientific Fact," and it was his policy to publish only stories that were scientifically correct, with a "basis in scientific laws as we know them. . . ." He also carried a section entitled "Science News of the Month," in which the publication sought to report up-to-date scientific achievements "in plain English." Copy of editorial page from Science Wonder Stories 1 (1929) in Hugo Gernsback, biographical file, NASA Historical Reference Collection. See also Tom D. Crouch, "'To Fly to the World in the Moon': Cosmic Voyaging in Fact and Fiction from Lucian to Sputnik," in Science Fiction and Space Futures, Past and Present, ed. Eugene M. Emme, AAS History Series, Vol. 5 (San Diego: Univelt, 1982), pp. 19-22, and Sam Moscowitz, "The Growth of Science Fiction from 1900 to the Early 1950s," in Blueprints for Space: Science Fiction to Science Fact (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992), pp. 69-82, among other sources on Gernsback, who is generally credited with coining the term "science fiction."
  20. As of March 17, 1994, the On-Line Computer Library Center (OCLC) data base showed 8 libraries in the U.S. as holding hard copies of the June 1929-May 1930 issues of Science Wonder Stories plus 14 others with those issues on microfilm. There may, of course, have been other libraries holding the set including the partial Potocnik translation at earlier dates, but many of the current holdings of microfilm especially seem to have been acquired recently. The Library of Congress Pre-1956 Imprints shows only 6 libraries holding Science Wonder Stories and its sequels, for example, and Donald H. Tuck (The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction and Fantasy, 3 vols. [Chicago: Advent Publishers, Inc., 1974-1982], vol. 1, p. 185) reports that all of Gernsback's science fiction magazines "led checkered careers, some lasting only brief periods." On the other hand, Fred Ordway reports that he owns a fine set of Science Wonder Stories and that many copies of such pulp magazines found their way to England as ballast on ships returning less than full from carrying certain types of cargo to the United States. Thus, there may be many copies of the publication still in private hands.
  21. Hacker, "Idea of Rendezvous," p. 384n. Hacker seems to suggest that this was a full translation, but according to L. J. Carter, long-time executive secretary of the BIS, this was not the case. In a letter to Fred Ordway on April 15, 1994, he wrote in answer to Fred's question about the existence of such a document, "yes, we used a translation of extracts from it [the Potocnik book] when considering the early BIS Space Station designs. This, however, was done before the war so it is unlikely that anything has survived." Information kindly provided by Fred Ordway.
  22. On-Line Computer Library Center printout from early March 1994 showing one copy in the United States at the California Institute of Technology.
  23. Entitled "Extra-Terrestrial Relays," this article is generally credited with being the first account that clearly outlined the idea of communications satellites. In it, Clarke suggested three satellites space equidistantly at altitudes of 22,300 miles (35,900 kilometers) to provide complete coverage of the Earth. See, e.g., Telecommunications Satellites: Theory, Practice, Ground Stations, Satellites, Economics, ed. K[enneth] W. Gatland (London: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1964), pp. 1-2, 21; Neil McAleer, Odyssey: The Authorized Biography of Arthur C. Clarke (London: Gollancz, 1992), pp. 58-61.
  24. Clarke's comments appeared in a letter to the IEEE Spectrum 31, (Mar. 1994): 4, responding to a letter from the Austrian, Viktor Kudielka, in the same journal, vol. 30, (June 1993): 8, where the latter claimed precedence for Potocnik in inventing a geostationary orbit for short wave communications. (My thanks to Lee Saegesser of the NASA History Office for bringing the Clarke letter to my attention.) Pichler, "Potocnik-Noordung," pp. 2, 10, also claims precedence for Potocnik in inventing communications satellites and the geosynchronous orbit.
  25. "Space Station Update," Spaceflight 27 (Feb. 1985): 92.
  26. Winter, Prelude to the Space Age: The Rocket Societies (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983), p. 114; Gruen, "The Port Unknown: A History of the Space Station Freedom Project" (as yet unpublished typescript dated 30 April 1993 and submitted to the NASA History Office), p. 13n7.
  27. "Crossing the Last Frontier," Collier's Mar. 22, 1952: 24-29, 72-73.
  28. Howard E. McCurdy, "The Possibility of Space Flight: From Fantasy to Prophecy," paper delivered at the annual meeting of the Society for the History of Technology, 15 Oct. 1993, pp. 2, 10-11, 16; The Space Station Decision: Incremental Politics and Technological Choice (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990), pp. 5-8, quotation from p. 8. Cf. the comment of W. Ray Hook, who had helped develop space station concepts at Langley Research Center and was later the manager of its Space Station Office and then its Director for Space. In an apparently unpublished paper entitled "Historical Review and Current Plans," p. 1, received in late 1983 in the NASA History Office and now residing in a folder marked "Space Station Historical" in the NASA Historical Reference Collection, he stated of von Braun and others' space station concept published in Collier's in 1952, "The basic tenets and objectives of this proposal were essentially sound and have been pursued with varying levels of activity ever since." See also in this connection, Randy Liebermann, "The Collier's and Disney Series," Blueprint for Space, pp. 135-146, and the video on the subject at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
  29. Space Station Decision, p. 5.
  30. Winter, The Rocket Societies, p. 114.
  31. Ernst Stuhlinger and Frederick I Ordway, Wernher von Braun: Aufbruch in den Weltraum (Munich: Bechtle Verlag, 1992), pp. 47-48. The English version of this book, Wernher von Braun: Crusader for Space, vol. 1: A Biographical Memoir (Melbourne, Florida: Krieger Publishing Company, 1994), contains this information on p. 16.
  32. Copy of "Lunetta" from Leben und Arbeit 2/3 (1930/31): 88-92 in von Braun biographical folder, "Sputnik to Dec. 1965," in the NASA Historical Reference Collection.
  33. Ways to Spaceflight, pp. 410-435.
  34. Hacker, "Idea of Rendezvous," pp. 384-385; Frederick I. Ordway, III, "The History, Evolution, and Benefits of the Space Station Concept (in the United States and Western Europe)," paper presented at the XIIIe Congress of the History of Science, Section 12, Moscow, August 1971, p. 6, later published in the Actes du XIIIe Congrès International d'Histoire des Sciences 12 (1974): 92-132. As Hacker points out, it was for Ross and Smith that the BIS English translation was later prepared. The design of their space station appeared in the London Daily Express in November 1948 and later as "Orbital Bases" in the Journal of the British Interplanetary Society 8 (Jan. 1949): 1-19.
  35. W. David Compton and Charles D. Benson, Living and Working in Space: A History of Skylab (Washington, D.C.: NASA SP-4208, 1983), esp. pp. 247-338, 381-386.
  36. See for example, The Aeronautics and Space Report of the President, Fiscal Year 1992 Activities (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1993), pp. 11, 15-16.
  37. Sylvia D. Fries, "2001 to 1994: Political Environment and the Design of NASA's Space Station System," Technology and Culture 29 (1988): 571.
  38. See, e.g., the unpublished paper of Alex Roland, "The Evolution of Civil Space Station Concepts in the United States" (May 1983), seen in his biographical file, NASA Historical Reference Collection.
  39. Hook, "Historical Review and Current Plans," pp. 8-10; Aeronautics and Space Report, FY 1992, Appendix C.
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