Aerodynamics expert developed U.S. rockets

Times Staff Writer

Werner K. Dahm, an aerodynamics expert credited with ensuring the flight-worthiness of everything from the early Redstone launcher to the space shuttle, has died. He was 90.

Dahm died Thursday at an assisted-living center in Huntsville, Ala., his family announced, without specifying a cause of death.

Dahm was part of the German rocket team headed by Wernher von Braun that was brought to the United States after World War II to build intercontinental ballistic missiles.

In Texas and later at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, he developed rockets for the Army and for NASA’s manned and unmanned spaceflight programs.


“America’s space program is preeminent because folks like Mr. Dahm contributed to building it into the best in the world,” Marshall’s director, David King, said last year. “Mr. Dahm is part of our history, and I know generations to come are going to benefit from the knowledge he has shared.”

Dahm was born Feb. 16, 1917, in Lindenthal, Germany. He studied aerodynamics and aircraft design at the Technical University in Aachen and later in Munich.

Denied entrance to aircraft courses because of his refusal to join the Nazi party, he concentrated on the nascent field of rocketry. When Germany began using V-2 rockets to attack England in World War II, Dahm was assigned to the German rocket program at Peenemunde, which was under the direction of Von Braun.

As the youngest member of the team, Dahm was assigned to future projects in which he conducted pioneering tests in a small wind tunnel. In this work, he discovered that at supersonic speeds the aerodynamic center of pressure changed, making the rocket unstable.


His subsequent work was devoted to understanding and countering this instability.

Facing advancing Russian troops in 1945, he and other members of the rocket team relocated to Oberammergau so they could surrender to American forces, considered to be more hospitable than the Russians.

After the war, he joined other scientists from the Von Braun team at Ft. Bliss, Texas, where they worked on the emerging American rocket program.

Tests at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico led to the development of the Army’s Redstone rocket.

“It was my job to make it fly,” Dahm said last year. “To everyone’s delight, it did.”

The team later moved to Huntsville, where members worked closely with researchers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada Flintridge to launch America’s first satellite on Jan. 31, 1958. Explorer 1 used the Redstone as its first stage, topped by three smaller stages of rockets designed by the lab.

“I remember waiting those 90 minutes it took to orbit for the sweetest sounds I ever heard -- beep, beep, beep -- coming from the satellite,” Dahm recalled. “That’s when we knew we had done it.”

NASA was created later that year, as the space race between the Russians and Americans began to heat up. Dahm went to work at Marshall, where he made major contributions to the development of the giant Saturn V rocket that a decade later would send astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the surface of the moon. To Dahm, the Saturn V was “a huge beast.”


In fact, the failure of the Russians to build a comparable and reliable massive launcher played a role in their abandonment of the goal of landing cosmonauts on the moon.

Dahm later became involved in other important space projects, particularly Skylab and the space shuttle. He led a team that worked on the aerodynamics of the shuttle, applying sophisticated fluid dynamics analysis to overcome a range of problems.

Dahm was chief of the aerophysics division at Marshall until 1992, when he became chief aerodynamicist. He received NASA’s Exceptional Service Medal in 2003 and continued working in various positions until his retirement at 89 in 2006.

Dahm said he kept working because he still found the job interesting.

“I thought I could teach people a bit more,” he said.

He is survived by four sons, a sister and two grandchildren.