German Potochnik – the forgotten father of space station design

Astronauts have been on the International Space Station for over 20 years, but all good things come to an end. In the next decade, NASA plans to replace the ISS with a new station owned and operated by one of three private companies (including Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin) that currently purport to build everything from science labs to space hotels.

But the ISS (let alone what comes after it) would never have existed were it not for a 19th-century rocket engineer who came up with the concept of the modern space station before the first rocket even reached outer space. 94 years ago, Austro-Hungarian engineer Herman Potochnik “Noordung” unveiled his dream – a rotating structure filled with laboratories and living quarters revolving around a solar-powered engine.

In the process, Noordung laid the groundwork for everything from the ISS to China’s Tiangong, to Jeff Bezos’ O’Neill cylinders, to NASA’s lunar gateway, which could lay the groundwork for leaving Earth.

Father of space station design

An illustration of the Noordunga space station (left) was featured on the cover of science fiction magazine Science Wonder Stories in 1929 (right).

In 1968, a spinning wheel-shaped space station hit the silver screen and changed science fiction forever.

Space Station V in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey immediately became one of the most iconic creations in film history. Its design is largely credited to the late rocket designer and former director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, Wernher von Braun. But in fact, von Braun was influenced by the earlier work of many engineers, including Hermann Potočnik “Noordung”, whose work von Braun cited in his doctoral dissertation.

Although some earlier scientists had hypothesized what a potential space station would require, Noordung, born in 1892 in the Croatian city of Pula, was the first person to plan and design a space station suitable for both scientific research and habitation.

In fairness, it should be noted that the concept of a space station as a habitat, scientific laboratory and industrial complex was first defined in 1895 by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (more than 30 years before Noordung), but he never created its real project, limiting himself to a simple sketch.

Noordung published his project in The Problem of Space Travel in 1928: The Rocket Engine (Das Problem der Befahrung des Weltraums). Book begins with the words: “From the beginning of time, mankind has considered its attachment to the Earth and the inability to free itself from the mysterious shackles of gravity as an expression of its earthly weakness.”

In his original foreword, Noordung goes on to argue that while previously space travel was “unthinkable” and “the stuff of science fiction novels,” it has now evolved from a “technical dream” to a “technical question” that, in his opinion, can be completely solved with the help of science available to him in 1928.

Nika Terage, Content Development Coordinator at Center Nordung, the Institute of Space Technology in Slovenia, said The Challenge of Space Travel includes many of the original ideas that underlie our current understanding of life in space, “including artificial gravity, space medicine and other technical advice.”

But it was the Noordung space station project that had the greatest impact. It consists of three parts: a rotating wheel of living quarters, an observatory and an engine room. All three of these elements will be free-flying components, connected by cables, to which the astronauts will attach to move between them.

Pages from Noordung’s book “The Problem of Space Travel”, on the left is the design of the gateway, and on the right is the design of the habitable module in the form of a wheel.

The habitable “wheel” included living quarters (where the astronauts would sleep and eat), laboratories, and observatories. The diameter of the wheel was 30 meters, and it made one revolution in eight seconds – the idea was that the centrifugal force would create a feeling of gravity, similar to that of the earth. It was the first design of a rotating space station (it can be seen in all the films from “2001” to “Elysium”). On the front of the wheel axle there was a concave mirror for collecting solar energy, and on the back there were sluices that served as the main entrance.

Noordung’s ideas are embodied in science fiction.

The second part, the engine room, was a solar power plant that provided electricity to the habitable part, the observatory, and the radio station.

The third part, the observatory, had a cylindrical shape and was equipped with windows. It provided space for a telescope and other observation instruments. According to Noordung, both of these parts had to perform special experimental tasks, so there was no gravity in them. To make it easier to move around the observatory, he overlaid all hard surfaces and edges with shock absorbers.

Noordung’s book also dealt with showering, sleeping, oxygen supply, and other basic issues related to living conditions on a space station. It was the first time a space station project had such a complete architectural and structural vision.

Although Noordung’s ideas were never realized, they were an important contribution to future space travel. Wernher von Braun, one of NASA’s leading rocket scientists in the 1960s, cited Noordung’s book in his doctoral dissertation.

History of Hermann “Noordung”

One of the only known photographs of Noordung, who passed away at the age of 36.

The origin of his pseudonym Noordung remains a mystery, but the most common theory is a play on words. Ordnung in German means order and it is possible that he shuffled the letters and came up with Noordung, implying no order.

Noordung grew up, attended military schools, became a lieutenant and a railway and bridge builder. During the First World War, he was sent to the Serbian front and contracted tuberculosis. After that, he received a doctorate in engineering from the Vienna University of Technology and devoted himself to rocket science.

Noordung even joined the university society of aviation technology, which also had its own department of rocket science. After graduation, he joined the Society for Space Travel (Verein für Raumschiffahrt), where he had his first contact with other prominent space travel pioneers, including Hermann Oberth. [считается отцом астронавтики].

The Problem of Space Travel was Noordung’s first and only published book. It caught the attention of the rocket science community, drawing both compliments and criticism.

Willy Lay, an expert in rocketry and space travel, criticized Noordung’s plans, but still called them “of great historical significance.” An illustration of the Noordung space station was featured on the cover of a science fiction magazine in 1929 and seen by writer Arthur C. Clarke (author of 2001: A Space Odyssey and many other science fiction stories).

However, due to the use of a pseudonym and an early death at the age of 36, very little is known about Noordung. The first English translation of his book was published by NASA only in 1995.

Legacy of Noordung

Space Technology Center named after Herman Potočnik Noordung in Vitanja, Slovenia.

Noordung left many letters addressed to his project unanswered, probably due to the fact that he died less than a year after the publication of his book.

He was buried in Vienna, but when his family stopped paying for the grave, the cemetery simply allocated the land to another family. The grave was forgotten until 2012, when a Slovenian gallerist and collector went looking for it. Today, Noordung’s grave still belongs to a different family, but there is a plaque nearby in memory of the father of space station design.

Although Noordung spent most of his life elsewhere, the small town of Vitanje in northeastern Slovenia is now recognized as his ancestral home. In 2012, the city built a space technology center to honor his legacy. The main activity of the center is to promote space technology and demonstrate human achievements in space through the interaction of art and high technology.

The round building of the center imitates the “inhabited wheel” project developed by Noordung. The main exhibition opens with the history of Noordung, and a rotating hologram shows in all its glory his greatest achievement – the space station project. Despite its small size, the hologram provides an excellent view of the habitation module, engine room, and observatory. In the display case next to it are sectional models of the space station, showing the interior of each of the three elements.

At the end of the exhibition, under the bright museum light, the first translated editions of Noordung’s book shine. In addition, there is a VR facility in which you find yourself face to face with the rotating space station of Noordung, hovering in the blackness of space.

The future of space station design

On the left is Blue Origin’s plan to replace the ISS, on the right is the Noordung Observatory project.

Since 1928, space technology has advanced significantly. What pioneers such as Nordung, Oberth and others only dreamed of has become a reality. When they lived, people had not even left the limits of the atmosphere. Today we have colonized our orbit, cities are planned to be built on neighboring planets, wealthy civilians are buying rocket tickets, and private companies will soon be building space stations for NASA.

While the three-part Noordunga space station was to be built as a single interconnected facility, the design of the future International Space Station was a combination of several modules. The new proposals from private companies to build future space stations follow NASA’s previous project of several elongated modules covered in solar panels, albeit in a more minimalist style.

These constructs may not be spinning like Noordung’s, but in terms of our progress, in low Earth orbit, they represent a giant leap for humanity based on Noordung’s earliest ideas about life in space.

On the left is Noordung’s original design for the observation hall of the space station, on the right is a diorama of his design at the Noordung Center in Slovenia.

As Russian historian and museum curator Tatyana Nikolaeva Zhelnina wrote in the preface to the Slovenian edition of Noordung’s book, his “project for a manned space station prepared in people’s minds a psychological transition from terrestrial to space architecture. Therefore, it is quite justified to call him the father of space architecture.

In the 94 years since Noordung first imagined a rotating space station full of scientific laboratories and powered by solar energy, humanity has come a long way towards realizing this idea. We may not have rotating structures (a lot of space debris around the Earth makes this too dangerous) or artificial gravity (yet), but astronauts are already doing the work that Noordung thought possible.

And who knows, perhaps at the current pace of development, his once-unrealistic ideas will be within reach by the time NASA finally replaces the International Space Station with something new.

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