By Rob Arndt

Hermann Noordung (born Herman Potoènik) served in World War I for the Austrian Army in Galicia, Serbia, and Bosnia. He was promoted to the rank of Oberleutnant (First Lieutenant) in 1915 and was assigned to the SW front of the Soca battlefield and reached the Piava River before the Austrian Army retreat.

After the war he was pensioned off by the Austrian Army as a Captain due to the tuberculosis he got in the war. He subsequently studied electrical and mechanical engineering at the University of Technology in Vienna, becoming an engineer. Inspired by the writings of Hermann Oberth on space flight by 1925 he had devoted himself to rocketry and became a specialist in that area.

Hermann Oberth has been considered by many to have been the original father of modern rocketry, having designed rockets and space stations from WW1 through the 1920s.

One of his rockets was featured in a popular German science fiction film, “Frau im Mond” (Woman in the Moon).

The “Friede” rocket in that film was personally designed by Oberth and this led to many inspirations for German rocket development that reached viability with the Nazi regime. Noordung surely got his inspiration from Oberth.

In 1927 the German film-maker Fritz Lang released his extraordinary futuristic vision Metropolis, so rocketry received a terrific boost when he announced that his next production would deal with space flight.

Willy Ley, one of the advisers to the film Frau im Mond (Woman in the Moon) recalled that 'a Fritz Lang film on space travel could scarcely be surpassed for spreading the idea. it is almost impossible to convey what magic that name had in Germany at that time'.

Lang also paid Hermann Oberth to build a real liquid-fuelled rocket which, it was hoped, would be launched to high altitude as the film was released.

Oberth was unable to engineer a practical rocket in time, and following an explosion which nearly cost his eyesight, suffered a nervous breakdown and left Munich before the film premiere. However, the propaganda influence of the film was still powerful and Oberth's assistant Rudolf Nebel went on to work with the young Wernher von Braun at the Raketenflugplatz - a test field started by Nebel near Berlin.

One of the details of FRAU IM MOND would have a lasting influence. As the Moon rocket neared the moment of launch, a loudspeaker announced: "Five ... four ... three ... two ... one ... zero ... FIRE!" Lang had invented the "countdown", if only for dramatic effect. The effect was so dramatic that rocket men have kept the tradition to this day.

Inspirational Oberth “Friede” rocket from “Frau im Mond” file

Detailed Wohnrad diagram from Noordung's book

Bottom view of Wohnrad with human scale
in view

Four years later in 1929 Noordung published a book Das Problem der Befahrung des Weltraums (roughly translated as “The Problem of Reaching Space”). In his book he devoted much of its space to his personal concept of a “Wohnrad” (Living Wheel) which could reach space and serve as an orbiting disc space station.

The Wohnrad itself would have an outer diameter of 164 feet and would rotate about its axis in order to create artificial gravity in the inhabitable outer ring. This would contain strong airlocks, bulkheads, cabins, workshops, laboratories, kitchen, and bathroom… plus a circular gallery with portholes to view the Earth and stars.

The station’s power source was solar and would be provided by two large concave mirrors to focus solar radiation onto massive heat pipes containing a liquid that would vaporize and drive turbines to produce continual electrical current. The vapor would condense in other pipes shaded from the sun. His Wohnrad had been a more refined space station concept than Oberth’s 1924 proposal, so it held great promise.

But on August 29, 1929 Hermann Noordung unfortunately died in Vienna at the age of 36 from pneumonia.

His work was translated into various languages and gave inspiration to Nazi Germany in particular with the VFR (Verein für Raumschiffahrt or German Rocket Society) with which both Oberth and von Braun further developed their own space flight ideas.

There is no doubt that had Noordung lived during the time Austria was annexed he would have been at the center of German rocket development at Peenemünde and may have been forced to use his design for more practical war weapons as von Braun was forced to do with the V-2 rocket with plans for the ICBM A-9/A-10. Noordung’s circular solar wheel could have been adapted into one of the various SS Technical Branch disc projects with perhaps spectacular results. The Nazis through Noordung might have allowed Germany to be the first nation to deploy geo-synchronous satellites around the world as well as the highly impractical Sonnenlinse (a bizarre experimental solar blinding device that was captured by US forces in testing stage in 1945). But it wasn’t meant to be.

In the end all of the pioneering work of Oberth, Noordung, and von Braun was turned over to the United States for further development.

It was von Braun who designed both the A-11 rocket for the purpose of launching a satellite and a less complicated circular space station.

Neither were built as the V-2 program became Germany‘s top wartime priority. Von Braun’s A-11 concept was nowhere near construction, not even the second stage A-10.

The Wohnrad concept may have inspired von Braun’s 1945 and 1952 space stations promoted by Stanley Kubrick’s movie “2001: A Space Odyssey” but the disc space station has yet to be built as mankind still clings to wasteful rocketry and modular stations of limited durability.

The projected A-11 three stage
satellite launcher

Illustration by von Braun,
Fort Bliss 1946

Von Braun 1953 Space Shuttle Design

Artist impression of Wohnrad with space mirrors deployed

Space Station V from movie "2001: A Space Odyssey"