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Günter F. Wendt
Born August 28, 1924 (1924-08-28) (age 85)
Berlin, Germany
Occupation NASA "Pad Leader"

Günter F. Wendt (b. August 28, 1924 in Berlin) is a German-American engineer noted for his work in the U.S. manned spaceflight program. An employee of McDonnell Aircraft and later North American Aviation, he was in charge of the NASA Kennedy Space Center launch tower pad operations for the entire Mercury and Gemini programs (1959-1966) and the manned phase of the Apollo program (1968-1975). His official title was "Pad Leader".

Wendt, like many others of the NASA Kennedy Space Center, was a colorful, behind-the-scenes, yet essential figure in the history of manned space exploration. In NASA documentary films, he appears as the smiling, bespectacled, thin man in the white cap and coveralls, usually standing to the right at the hatch door, clipboard in hand, or bending over seated crewmembers pulling their safety belts snug for launch.

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Early years

A native of Germany, Wendt studied mechanical engineering in Berlin and served aboard Luftwaffe night fighters as a flight engineer during World War II. He also spent a four-year apprenticeship learning aircraft building.[1]

Immediately after the war there were no job opportunities for engineers in Germany, so Wendt decided to emigrate to the United States in 1949 and join his divorced father in the city of St. Louis. McDonnell Aircraft was interested in hiring Wendt as an engineer, but could not hire a German citizen since they were working on U.S. Navy contracts. He found a job as a truck mechanic (though he had never worked on trucks) and within one year became shop supervisor. He obtained his U.S. citizenship in 1955 and was immediately hired by McDonnell.[1]

NASA career

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McDonnel Aircraft

As a McDonnell engineer, Wendt supervised spacecraft launch preparations at Cape Canaveral during the Mercury and Gemini manned space programs. He came to be regarded as a welcomed good luck figure to mission crews; always the last reassuring earth-bound human face they saw, kidding with the crewmembers and wishing them a successful trip, as he directed completion of the complex pad close-out procedures just prior to spacecraft launch.

Wendt's was the final word for the launch tower white room team responsible for loading and securing the mission crews, ensuring that spacecraft instrumentation, switches and controls were correct for launch, and securing the hatch. Nobody touched anything without his permission.

"There is no reason to say I am narrow-minded. Just do it my way and you will have no problem at all." -- Wendt[1]

One time a stubborn engineer intended to personally make a spacecraft change, with or without Wendt's permission. Wendt called security to have him removed.

"The [security] guy comes up on the elevator and he says [to the engineer], 'You like me to put handcuffs on you, or are you going to go by yourself?' The engineer dropped his jaw, but he left. Maybe this system is wrong, but I have had pretty good success with it. If I don't do a good job, I get out. I can't compromise." -- Wendt[1]

Astronaut Pete Conrad, known for his sense of humor, once said of Wendt:

"It's easy to get along with Guenter. All you have to do is agree with him."[1]

Mercury astronaut John Glenn fondly nicknamed Wendt "der Führer of der Launch Pad" (from his German-accented English) for his efficient, disciplined, yet good-humored pad crew leadership. No pejorative was intended, and Wendt took no offense. His strict approach was welcomed by the astronauts, who knew their lives were on the line and depended on strict configuration control of the equipment. Before Glenn's Mercury flight, Wendt tried to reassure Glenn's wife:

"Annie, we cannot guarantee you safe return of John. This would be lying. Nobody can guarantee you this -- there is too much machinery involved. The one thing I can guarantee you is that when the spacecraft leaves it is in the best possible condition for a launch. If anything should happen to the spacecraft, I would like to be able to come and tell you about the accident and look you straight in the eye and say, 'We did the best we could.' My conscience then is clear and there is where my guideline is."[1]

In January of 1967, Wendt, still with McDonnell (soon to become McDonnell Douglas), was supervising the test range in Titusville, Florida. Since NASA changed contractors on the Apollo program to North American Rockwell, he was not involved with the Apollo 1 spacecraft, in which a cabin fire caused the deaths of Gus Grissom, Edward H. White and Roger Chaffee. After the accident, several people expressed to him the wish that he had been there, as if he could have somehow caught the fatal problem in time to prevent the tragedy. But Wendt himself did not presume to believe this:

"...maybe it was meant for me not to be there because I would have taken it very hard."[1]

North American Rockwell

Grissom's backup and replacement on the Apollo 7 flight, Mercury and Gemini veteran Wally Schirra insisted on having Wendt back in charge of the pad crew for his flight, and convinced astronaut leader Deke Slayton to get North American to hire him. Schirra personally convinced North American's vice-president and general manager for launch operations, Buz Hello, to change Wendt's shift from midnight to day so he could be pad leader for Apollo 7.[1]

During the Apollo 7 liftoff, Donn Eisele said to the ground, "I vonder vere Guenter Vendt?" (The German language pronounces the letter w as a v.) Wendt appreciated the pun, and Eisle's imitation of his thick German accent.[1]

Crewmembers of the other Apollo missions shared an equally high regard for Wendt, and he stayed on with the formal Pad Leader title through the end of the Apollo missions.

He continued to work at the cape into the early Space Shuttle flights.

Later years

Wendt later served as a technical consultant for several TV and movie features and wrote in his biography The Unbroken Chain about his time at NASA. He remains a personal friend of many American astronauts, and is a recipient of NASA's "Letter of Appreciation" award.

Biography

  • Guenter Wendt & Russell Still, The Unbroken Chain, 2001, Apogee Books (ISBN 1-896522-84-X)

On film and television

Guenter F. Wendt has been portrayed in a number of movies and television shows or series about the Space Race, including:

  • Endre Hules depicts Wendt in a short sequence in the film Apollo 13, where Jim Lovell (played by Tom Hanks) playfully mocks and repeats Eisle's pun from Apollo 7, "I vonder vere Guenter Vendt?"
  • From the Earth to the Moon (played by Max Wright)
  • Search of Liberty Bell 7 - Discovery Channel

Notes

  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Farmer, Gene; Dora Jane Hamblin (1970). First On the Moon: A Voyage With Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin E. Aldrin, Jr.. Boston: Little, Brown and Co.. pp. 51-54. Library of Congress 76-103950. 

External links


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