Last of the Original Rocketmen

Earlier this week I learned from the NASA website that Konrad Dannenberg died on Monday at the age of 96. Dannenberg was a key member of Wernher von Braun’s original engineering team that developed the hardware and processes which enabled humans to reach the moon.
Konrad Dannenberg

While attending the adult version of Space Camp in Huntsville in late 2002 and early 2003, I had the pleasure of meeting Dannenberg and talking with him about his experiences. We spoke at length about his work on various launch systems for NASA, including the Redstone — which lifted the first American astronauts into space — and the Saturn V which carried the first humans to the moon. Dannenberg told me how, at the request of Wernher von Braun, he started and managed the development of the Saturn V (which still holds the title of “largest rocket ever built”).

Dannenberg also spoke somewhat guardedly about his time at Peenemünde, Germany (site of the development of the V‑2 rocket during World War II) and his work developing the engines that propelled the V‑2. At the time I met him in 2002, there was still much speculation about whether the glowing Foo Fighters observed shadowing Allied planes during the war were some sort of German weapon prototype, and I asked Dannenberg if he had any knowledge of such an usual flying weapon. He replied that while he had no firsthand knowledge of such a weapon, the descriptions of the Foo Fighters were in line with some of the German aviation projects he had indirectly heard about.

Interestingly, I’ve never read other comments from Dannenberg anywhere else about the Foo Fighter phenomena and his belief that Foo Fighters could have been of German origin. That fact leads me to conclude that either Dannenberg was pulling my leg, or that I had inadvertently coaxed a small piece of history out of him.

My short time with Dannenberg left me with the impression of an understated engineering genius and someone who enthusiastically believed that humankind’s greatest journeys into space still lie ahead of us. (My most prized possession from meeting Dannenberg is a book he autographed containing artist’s depictions of the spacecraft that will carry us to Mars and beyond.) Given the critical role he played in the first 50 years of humans in space, Konrad Dannenberg truly was one of the great rocketmen.

1 thought on “Last of the Original Rocketmen”

  1. Jackie Dannenberg

    I am Konrad’s widow. I fiind it interesting that you thought him “guarded” in speaking about Peenemunde. In all my time listening to him speak in public or privately about Peenemunde, he was anythng BUT guarded. He was NOT happy that the A‑4 (or V‑2 — he preferred to call it by its engineering title rather than the reference to war) was being used for warfare. He was of the belief that the German war effort was a losing proposition and that Hitler was nuts. But if he had ever expressed that of course it would have been catistrophic. After alll, von Braun was sent to prison for talking at a bar and was overheard by a German soldier (I think that’s how the story goes but close enough) that he wasn’t happy about his rocket being used it warfare — he wanted to go to the Moon. I dare say most of them felt that way.
    Konrad’s favorite launch was the day the A‑4 first successfully launched into space on October 3, 1942. That paved the way for space programs internationally — not just the U.S.
    Just my take on it. He normally wasn’t afraid to admit if he’d heard of something or not either. Germany did alot of technological advancements however the engineers didn’t know what was going on outside their own respective departments. For example, even though it was located within the Peenemunde Rocket Research area, Konrad had no idea that they had developed and constructed the first wind tunnel to exceed Mach 1. If you didn’t have a badge for that area, you weren’t allowed in nor did you know what was going on in any department other than your own.
    I guess I’ve explained my point. I’m glad you got to meet Konrad. He was a very impressive individual. His collection is located at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. You can make an appointment to see it any time. In it are two diaries from Peenemunde from 1941 — 1944. He has a daily log entry and it’s quite detailed. Indeed, he kept a diary every day almost until his passing. Very detail oriented and very happy to share his experience and pass the torch to the next generation. He inspried many students and a few went into the aerospace industry on account of him. He spoke to over 250,000 students during his time at Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama.

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