Austrian Space Pioneers

Conrad Haas

Born approx. 1509 in Dornbach (now part of Vienna)
Died 1579 in Hermannstadt, Transylvania In 1963 the Romanian engineer Doru Todericiu investigated a manuscript of about 450 pages in the national archive of Sibiu, Romania (former Hermannstadt). The manuscript had been known as a work on different problems of artillery and ballistics, but Todericiu analyzed it with regard to its scientific and technological content. He found out, that the author of the third part of the manuscript, a man named Conrad Haas, described remarkable ideas about rocketry.
Not very many details about the life of Conrad Haas are known. He was born in Dornbach, near Vienna. He served as an artillery guard and commissioned officer of the Imperial court of Vienna. In this function he probably came in 1551 with Imperial troops to Transylvania* and became chief of the artillery camp of the arsenal of Hermannstadt. Between 1529 and 1569 he wrote the above mentioned manuscript which seems to be among other things the very first description of the principle of a multi stage rocket. He describes and depicts rockets with two and three stages, talks about bundling of rockets, stabilizing fins and using liquid fuel.
In one of the drawing he shows a cylindrical housing at the top of a rocket, which is probably the first (naive) drawing of a space station. According to Todericiu, Haas has even made experiments with his solid-fuel stage rockets. Among all the geometrical and ballistic calculations, descriptions of test and measurement techniques, Conrad Haas warns against the use for purposes of war and wants his knowledge to be used for peaceful applications.

As a consequence of a treaty in 1506 between the monarchs of Austria and Hungary, "Siebenbürgen" (Transylvanya) became 1526 formerly a territory of the Hapsburgs (and later part of the Austrian Empire). In this context troops were sent in 1551 from Vienna to Hermannstadt.

Johannes Kepler (1571-1630)

The general influence of Johannes Kepler on the development of science during the transition from the Middle Ages to modern times is worth mentioning. During his time in Austria, initially during the period 1594-1599, he taught mathematics at a protestant school in Graz, and wrote his book "Cosmograhpic Mystery". After the catholic authorities closed the school, he looked for a new position and moved to Prague, to become assitant to Tycho Brahe. He returned to Austria in 1612, when he moved to Linz and stayed there for fourteen years. While in Linz he published the "Harmony of the World", which included his "Third Law".

Guido von Pirquet

Born 1880 in Hirschstetten (now part of Vienna)
Died 1966 in Vienna
Guido von Pirquet studied mechanical engineering at the Universities of Technology in Vienna and Graz. He was a member of a distinguished Austrian family, his brother Clemens was a worldwide renown physician. His expertise in ballistics and thermodynamics made him a notable personality in the rocket circles. He got elected first secretary of the rocket society founded by Franz von Hoefft. His most important contributions in the field of rocketry were his article about the possible concepts of space travel in his book "Die Möglichkeit der Weltraumfahrt" (The Possibility of Space Travel) edited by the young German Willi Ley in 1928 and his series of articles about interplanetary trajectories (to Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn) in the journal "Die Rakete" (The Rocket) of the "Verein für Raumschiffahrt" (German Rocket Society), the worlds largest rocket society at the time. Through the calculations of a rocket nozzle for a manned rocket to planet Mars, he realized that the rocket needed to lift-off directly from Earth would be too large, the nozzle area of the first stage being about 1500 square meter, to be technically feasible. He concluded that a manned expedition to Mars could only be accomplished by building a space station in Earth"s orbit, where the space ship for travel to Mars could be assembled. His calculated trajectory (published in 1928) for a space probe to reach Venus is identical to the one used by the first Soviet interplanetary spacecraft to Venus in 1961.

Franz von Hoefft

Born 1882 in Vienna
Died 1954 in Linz
Franz von Hoefft studied Chemistry at the University of Technology Vienna, the university Göttingen and graduated at the Vienna University in 1907 with a thesis on physical chemistry. He worked as an engineer for furnaces in Donawitz, as a tester at the Austrian Patent Office and as a consultant. During the twenties several rocket societies were founded, which contributed a lot in spreading the idea of rocketry. Dr. Hoefft founded in 1926 the first space related society in Western Europe, the "Wissenschaftliche Gesellschaft für Höhen-forschung" (The Scientific Society for High Altitude Research) in Vienna. Hoefft, an expert of rocket fuels, proposed a noteworthy program of rocket development. The first step was the development of a liquid-fuel sounding rocket called RH-I (RH meaning Repulsion Hoefft). The rockets would be transported by balloons up to the height of 5 to 10 kilometers, where they would be launched. Such rockets could be used for rocket mail and for photographic remote sensing of the Earth. The capacity of the rockets would be advanced till the last step in the development, the space ship RH-VIII. One of the intermediate steps, the manned spacecraft RH-V, would fly around the Earth in ellipses. The special form of the RH-V should make it possible to take off and land on water by skids and fly within the atmosphere as an airplane and above the atmosphere as a rocket. RH-V could also be used as the upper stage of RH-VI to RH-VIII, which would be launched from a space station and could be used to reach other planets or even leave our solar system. But Hoefft never had the opportunity to promote his visionary program by practical contributions.

Franz Abdon Ulinski

Born 1890 in Blosdorf, Moravia (today Czech republic)
Died 1974 in Wels (Austria)
In 1910, after attending secondary school in Linz, Austria, Franz Abdon Ulinski joined the army of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He served in different positions before the First World War and as technical officer in the aviation corps during the war. Around 1919 he proposed the design of a spacecraft, propelled by a jet of electrons (or ions). A year later, he published his ideas in a journal of aeronautics in Vienna. Two types of energy supply were proposed, firstly using solar panels for energy accumulation and secondly disintegration of atoms. His ideas for propulsion of a spacecraft were ahead of his time and were not taken seriously. One reason was certainly the magnitude of the energy needed to leave the gravitation of the Earth using such a spacecraft. Nevertheless his concept proves to be of importance for manned space travel to other planets, namely as an economical way of transport where launching is performed from a station already in Earth orbit. The technological advancement has taken some time but not long ago a spacecraft using ion thrusters was put into space to demonstrate the concept. Deep Space One will fly by an asteroid before its trajectory brings it close to a comet. Another application for ion thrusters is the stabilization of satellites in Earth orbit.

Herman Potocnik

Born 1892 in Pola, Austria-Hungary (now Pula, Croatia)
Died 1929 in Vienna
Herman Potocnik, educated at various military schools in the Austrian-Hungarian Empire was appointed second lieutenant at the military college of Mödling near Vienna in 1913. After serving in a railway corps during the First World War he studied and graduated from electrical engineering at the University of Technology in Vienna. In 1928 Potocnik worked out a detailed technical design of a space station and published it 1929 in a book called "Das Problem der Befahrung des Weltraums - der Raketenmotor" (The problem of space travel - the rocket motor) under his pen name Hermann Noordung. His space station consisted of up to three modules: the "Wohnrad" (Inhabitable Wheel), the power station and the observatory. The modules would be connected by cables. The inhabitable wheel has the form of a giant wheel and rotates to simulate gravity in the living areas. On top of the wheel there would be parabolic mirrors mounted to concentrate the solar radiation for the power supply through a heat engine power station. Potocnik worked out all the necessary equipment for his space station in great detail. A very similar concept of a space station design has been proposed by Wernher von Braun in 1953. Herman Potocnik also describes in his book how a satellite could be positioned such to be visible all day long from a very spot on Earth, namely about 36.000 kilometers above the equator. Today satellites in this "geostationary" orbit play an important role for telecommunications and weather forecasting. Herman Potocnik died of pneumonia caught during the war, shortly after the publication of his book in Vienna.

*note: "The Problem of Space Travel. The Rocket Motor" has been edited the first time in English in 1995 by NASA.

Herman Oberth

Born 1894 in Hermann-stadt, Austria-Hungary (now Sibiu, Romania)
Died 1989 in Feucht, near Nuremberg, Germany
Oberth grew up in the German- speaking part of Transylvania in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In his youth he became interested in space travel by reading Jules Verne"s novels. 1913 he went to Munich to study medicine. His studies were interrupted by WW I, where Oberth served in the Austro-Hungarian Army in a medical corps. After the war, Oberth studied physics and sub-mitted in 1922 to the University of Heidelberg a thesis about rocket-propelled space travel. It was rejected because the idea of space travel was too utopian in academic circles. Shortly afterwards he published his work as a small booklet "Die Rakete zu den Planetenräumen" (The Rocket Into Interplanetary Space) at his own expense. The book was a great success and got much publicity, despite the fact that it was written in a very technical language, and it caused scientific discussions about a field, which was known only from fantastic (utopian, science fiction) literature. Between 1924 and 1938 Oberth worked as a teacher of mathematics and physics at a school in Mediasch, Transylvania but stayed in touch with fellow rocketry pioneers through the German Rocket Society ("Verein für Raumschiffahrt"). In 1928/29 Oberth started to build a high altitude rocket for the occasion of the première of the movie "Die Frau im Mond" by the Austrian director Fritz Lang, for which he was scientific advisor. During WW II Oberth worked at the Vienna and Dresden Universities of Technology and later became a consultant at the Peenemünde rocket plant. During all his live Oberth was creatively working in the field of rocketry but never held any prestigious leading position within that field.
*Note: Oberth"s above mentioned Austro-Hungarian roots justified to include him in this overview. However, it probably would be more appropriate to refer to him as a German (with an Austro-Hungarian background). Still, the lack of German citizenship had an important disadvantageous influence on his career in Germany.

Max Valier

Born 1895 in Bozen, Tyrol
Died 1930 in Berlin
Max Valier was very interested in astronomy during his youth. After attending secondary school and in parallel working as an unpaid trainee in a precision mechanics workshop, he started in 1913 to study astronomy, mathematics and physics at the University of Innsbruck. After serving in the aviation unit of the Austro-Hungarian Army during the First World War he resumed his studies in Vienna and Munich, but never graduated and worked as a writer on scientific subjects. After reading Oberth"s book in 1923 he felt compelled to write (with Oberth"s help) a popular book on the subject, "Der Vorstoß in den Weltenraum" (Advance Into Space) which was published in 1924 and was written in a non-technical language. Six editions went into print until 1930. Valier proposed an evolutionary program to advance rocketry which consisted of four stages:

  • test-bed experiments
  • rocket-powered vehicles (cars, railcars, sledges and gliders)
  • rocket-assisted airplanes
  • increase of airplane performance up to rocket-propelled space ship


Valier"s rocket car, rocket railcar, rocket sledge and rocket glider experiments using solid fuel rockets obtained very large publicity in Germany. Some of the experiments were done in collaboration with Fritz von Opel, the owner of the German Opel car factory. Around 1929-1930 he started to experiment with liquid fuel rockets but was killed in an accident during one of the test-bed experiments on May 17, 1930 in Berlin, when the rocket combustion chamber exploded.

Friedrich Schmiedl

Born 1902 in Schwertberg, Upper Austria
Died 1994 in Graz
Friedrich Schmiedl, educated in a college for civil engineering, studied a combination of science and technology at the University of Graz and the Graz University of Technology after the First World War. More of an experimentalist than a theore-tician he soon turned away from academic education and worked as a civil engineer. Nevertheless he has become known for the world"s first rocket launches for the purpose of transporting mail. His first experiments with solid fuel rockets were made in 1918 and after several unsuccessful attempts he started in 1931 his "Experimental Rocket No. 7", which transported 102 letters, from Schöckl near Graz to a small village about 5 kilometers apart. It was remotely controlled and the landing was accomplished by a parachute. Schmiedl proposed that the postal rocket transports mail between villages in mountainous regions and between the large capitals around the world. He also had various other applications in mind (e.g. sounding rockets, photo-reconnaissance rockets, etc.) and he performed hundreds of rocket test runs (mainly with solid fuels) and several other successful mail rocket launches. He could not convince any Austrian officials of the merits of his developments. One of the reasons his ideas about rocket mail transportation never materialised was the rapid improvement in aviation engineering during this period and the subsequent establishment of airmail delivery services between major capitals.

Eugen Sänger

Born 1905 in Presznitz, Bohemia, Austria-Hungary
Died 1964 in Berlin
Eugen Sänger, first studied civil engineering at the University of Technology in Graz, but after reading Oberth"s book about space travel he changed to the field of aeronautics at the University of Technology in Vienna. It was impossible for him to graduate with a thesis on rockets so instead he wrote one about experimental airfoil design and graduated in 1931.
In 1932 he started to establish a test-bed for rocket engines at the University of Technology in Vienna, where he worked as an assistant researcher and developed and experimented on different designs of combustion chambers.
His famous book "Raketenflugtechnik" (Rocket Flight Engineering) was published 1933. This was the first book on rocketry from an academic professional. His experimental success in designing rocket engines led to engagement as head of his development center for jet engines in Trauen, Germany, in 1936.
During WW II he experimented with designs for combustion chambers providing a thrust of up to 100 tons and designs of jet propulsion. Together with his wife Irene Sänger-Bredt, he worked out the detailed plans for a horizontally starting and landing rocket space plane, which could transport a one ton payload into orbit. This so-called "Silbervogel" (Silver Bird) was the prototype of a subsequent series of designs of horizontally starting and landing space planes. In honor of his achievements the German proposal for a next generation space plane is named "Sänger II". It consists of an airplane for reaching higher altitudes plus the piggy-back rocket plane.
After the war he worked for the French government and he was one of the founders of the International Astronautical Federation in 1951. He served as its first president. In 1954 he founded in Stuttgart the Research Institute for Physics of Jet Propulsions. Since 1962 he worked as a professor for jet propulsion in Berlin, Germany.



The author of the biographies Bruno P. Besser works at the Space Research Institute, Austrian Academy of Sciences