From the current point of view, the pioneer phase of rocketry and space travel began several centuries ago, and continued during the decades just before World War II. In this early period Austrian engineers and scientists played quite a prominent role in the world of men thinking how to travel in space. Although these pioneers realised only a few of their ideas in their home country, an important part of today’s space applications can be traced back to the first blueprints created by these men. They published their ideas and made their tests mainly in the period between 1918 and 1934, a short period during which the performance of Austrian scientists and engineers was outstanding in many areas.. Most activities at that time took place in Vienna and Graz, the cities where, still today, most Austrian space technology is concentrated.
Whilst most of these Austrians are not well known, their ideas where executed later by others, or they influenced in one way or other later developments.
However, there is one Austrian whose ideas hardly influenced the later history of rocketry – due to lack of communication. Yet, he might have been the most innovative thinker ever in this field:
Conrad Haas (1509-1579)
Conrad Haas was born near Vienna. He served as a guardsman in the Artillery of the Imperial court of Vienna and later became commandant of an artillery barracks. Between 1529 and 1569 he wrote a book called Kunstbuch (Manual of Techniques). More than two thirds of this 282- page manuscript is dedicated to rocketry, and the ideas, as far we can judge, are his own. The descriptions, illustrated by numerous original drawings, treat for the first time inter alia the following topics:
- principle of a multi-stage rocket with designs for rockets with two and three stages
- bundling of several rockets
- bell shaped expansion nozzles
- usage of liquid fuel components (alcohol and aethyl acetate)
- delta-shaped stabilizing fins
- first intuitive idea and drawing of a space station (‘flying house’)
There are indications that Haas actually did perform experiments with, for example, stage rockets. However, his inventions and ideas were insufficiently passed on and had to be re-invented bit by bit, starting more than hundred years after his death. Only in 1963 was his manuscript detected in the national archive of Hermannstadt (now called Sibiu and part of Romania) where Haas spent the latter years of his life.
Graz and Vienna between 1918 and 1934
Shortly after World War, in the academic environment of the Universities of Technology in Graz and Vienna several Austrians developed concepts for space travel:
Franz von Hoefft (1882-1954) founded the Wissenschaftliche Gesellschaft für Höhenforschung in 1926. This was the first space-related society in Western Europe. Von Hoefft worked out a detailed plan to use rockets for remote sensing, launched at heights of between 5000 to 10000 meters. Transport to this altitude was to be provided with balloons.
Guido von Pirquet (1888-1966) published his calculations of the trajectory of a space probe to Venus in 1928. Thirty-three years later, Soviet engineers actually used this trajectory for the first mission to Venus. In the same year he published his concept of the functions of space stations. Apparently he was the first to see benefits of a space station to make savings in the propellant used for interplanetary flights.
In the following year, 1929, Herman Potočnik (1892-1929) published under his pen name Hermann Noordung the book Das Problem der Befahrung des Weltraums – der Raketenmotor (translated and edited by NASA in 1995 under the title The Problem of Space Travel. The Rocket Motor). In this book he evolved his concept of a space station as ‘inhabitable wheel’. Only in the 1950s was this concept adopted and further developed by Werner von Braun.
However, Potočnik established his important role in the history of space activities by something else: it was he who discovered the geostationary orbit for satellites at about 36 000 km altitude.
About ten years before the appearance of Potočnik´s book, Franz Ulinski (1890-1974) published his concept of spacecraft propulsion by solar energy (derived from solar panels) and ion propulsion (Das Problem der Weltraumfahrt, Vienna 1920). When published, this concept place requirements on technology which went far beyond the state-of-the-art at that time. Consequently, his ideas were hardly taken seriously. However, ion thrusters have been now used in orbit, and they were developed quite close to the place Ulinski’s article was published.
In the area around Graz, Friedrich Schmiedl (1902-1994) experimented with solid fuel rockets following the end of World War I. Transportation of mail was one of the immediate applications he had in mind. Actually, in 1931 he successfully launched the world’s first postal rocket from the Schöckl near Graz transporting 102 letters. However, due to improvements in the airmail service soon after, postal rockets never gained significant importance.
More important for the general development of rocketry was the work of Eugen Sänger (1905-1964). After completing his studies in Graz and Vienna, he undertook a series of tests on rocket engines in Vienna in 1932. From 235 tests he obtained results of what were then probably the most exact measurements on different designs of combustion chambers and use of various types of fuel. This work was published in 1933 in his book Raketenflugtechnik. In this book he also elaborated concepts of rocket planes and space gliders. Following World War II, Sänger worked and for the French government and later in Germany and became the first president of the International Astronautical Federation. After his death, a German proposal for a future space plane has been named “Sänger II”.
The foregoing text is only a synopsis of the work of a few of the early Austrian contributors to space technology. In addition we may mention the Tyrolean Max Valier (1895-1930), who tested rocket engines in Germany installed in rocket powered cars, railcars and sledges. Before that, he had already gained fame with the publication in 1924 of Der Vorstoß in den Weltenraum (Advance into Space). This book was inspired by the Romanian-German pioneer Hermann Oberth (1894-1989) who was born as citizen of Austria-Hungary in Hermannstadt - the same city where Conrad Haas had died some three hundred years earlier.
After 1934, Austrian space activities did not stop, but there were no more revolutionary pioneering performances achievements. The period of ideas was anyhow phasing out, and the approaching period of the realisation of large space projects was first and foremost the preserve of larger nations. However, in the preceding period of ideas, which was concentrated into only about 15 years of the early twentieth century, Austria made substantial contributions to space travel. And of course, there was an impressive precursor precursor in the sixteenth century.
Text by G.Deutsch - First published in “Preparing for the Future” Vol 10, Nr.2
© European Space Agency (ESA) August 2000