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.
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.