Sunday, February 22, 2009

Remembering Konrad Dannenberg

Photo: Konrad Dannenberg and Jennifer Lewter

   Konrad Dannenberg loved rockets, first and foremost. He also loved sweets, chocolate, beer, and music by Lawrence Welk. But rockets were his true love. He was 96 years old when he passed away this week, and I was very grateful to attend his memorial service and learn so many things about his life.

   I first met Konrad and his son Klaus at a space conference in Washington D.C. several years ago. Konrad, walking with a cane, was able to deliver a powerpoint presentation about his experiences with the infamous German rocket research and development at Peenemunde. Their accomplishments, including the efforts of the better known Wernher von Braun, became the technical foundations of the American and Russian space programs. I was simply amazed at this man - a living piece of history that was sitting and talking before me.
Klaus, during his Dad's memorial service, said that Konrad had walked through the Udvar-Hazy segment of the Smithsonian's National Air & Space Museum and was largely unimpressed. There were so many aircraft, but not many rockets. "There's not much here," Konrad had said to his son. (?!)
   Each family member who spoke mentioned the same theme - Konrad's focus was on rockets, but not much else. Most were tearful, and I myself cried through most of Klaus' talk. They were so honest and sincere, you may not have known that hundreds of people were in attendance, sitting quietly, respectfully, in the new Davidson Building of Huntsville's Space & Rocket Center with a gargantuan Saturn V rocket in the next room.
   One family member said Konrad was often asked about his involvement with Hitler, who would come to visit the young rocketeers at Peenemunde and check the progress made on their research. Konrad would say that he had also met John F. Kennedy, so why didn't people ask him about JFK? (How many people do you know who've met both Hitler and JFK??)
Klaus also spoke of Konrad's mid-life crisis, which was apparently a very difficult time for him. In Klaus' words, "When as a boy you set going to the moon as your goal, and you make it, then what do you do?" Konrad decided to "pass on the passion," and he became very involved with the youth programs at the Space & Rocket Center. It is estimated that he spoke to 250,000 young people during his years of service.
   It was also very important for Konrad to feel connected to the outside world. He was an adamant e-mailer, up until the end. His family testified that he liked to design his own birthday cards for them on his computer, and he never missed a date.
His body is what failed him, not his mind, said Jackie, his wife of 18 years. He never lost his sharpness, and he grew annoyed at the simple questions ("What is your favorite color?") the hospital staff would ask him to test his mental competency. Jackie joked that he should ask them what the ISP of the Space Shuttle engines were.

Godspeed, Konrad. It was such an honor to have met you.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Armadillos and Costa Rican Coffee

   I had my Friday night dinner party with Margaret, Russ and Brandon. The food was excellent, as always, and Margaret had even prepared two homemade pumpkin pies for dessert. The guys finished dinner before me (I am ALWAYS the last person eating, regardless of who I am with) and started in on the pies. Margaret laughed when she realized she had forgotten to add the sugar to the pies. The guys quietly took turns covering their pieces of pie with whipped cream from a can, like some sort of necessary and solemn ritual that would make the pie bearable to eat.
   The after-dinner conversation turned to animals and veterinary practices and mercy killings, and Brandon told a very disturbing story about an experience he had many years ago. He was working as an attendant at a gas station, and someone had run over an armadillo. It was severely injured and ran towards the gas station, leaving a trail of intestines behind it. Brandon said it was making a horrible noise, and he tried to find something around the shop so he could end its suffering. Unfortunately, the only thing he could find was a baseball bat, so he proceeded to go outside to beat the poor thing to death. He splattered blood all over himself in the process, and at that inopportune moment, a customer pulled up to buy gas and saw, of course, a blood-spattered man holding a baseball bat. Brandon said he never came back!
   We had coffee after dinner, as we usually do. Brandon said he wanted to try to grow his own beans. Fresh coffee, just picked and served within hours of being roasted, is apparently as good as it gets. Margaret said she had some fresh coffee in Coasta Rica and it was unbelievably smooth. She said Costa Rica never exports their best coffee; they keep it for the locals. Which means it is time for me to go to Costa Rica!