Remembering Guenter Wendt, Apollo-era 'pad führer'
Guenter Wendt was NASA's original launch pad leader – or 'pad führer,' as he was affectionately known – for the agency's manned space program and the last man the Apollo astronauts saw before launching to the moon. He died Monday.
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Reporting to Cape Canaveral as a McDonnell Aircraft Corp. engineer working on missile projects soon after gaining his American citizenship in 1955, Wendt, who was born and educated in Berlin, became part of the effort to launch the first U.S. astronauts into space.
As pad leader – or "pad führer" as the astronauts came to affectionately call him due to his strong German accent and unwavering rules – Wendt oversaw the spacecraft on the launch pads and all who had access to them to ensure the safety of all those involved.
As he recalled in "The Unbroken Chain," Wendt's memoir released in 2001, "If you came up to the spacecraft, you didn't touch it without my permission. During emergencies, I wouldn't have time to form a committee. I had to make sure I had the authority to make the decision whenever anything became critical."
"Simply put, in an emergency the buck stopped with me," Wendt wrote with his co-author Russell Still.
But when a fire broke out in the Apollo 1 spacecraft on the pad, an emergency that ultimately claimed the lives of three astronauts, Wendt was not there. After serving as the pad leader for the Mercury and Gemini missions, a change in contractors resulted in Wendt being reassigned.
"I showed them my previous job description," Wendt wrote about North American Aviation, "and explained my need to have complete control in the white room."
"They simply could not give that type of authority to a new comer [to the company]," Wendt described, adding that he was offered a "watered-down version" of the position, but had to decline.
So it was by television Wendt learned of the fire on the pad on Jan. 27, 1967.
"I remember the sudden weight I felt in my shoulders," he described in his book. "I slumped down in my chair as if I weighed a thousand pounds."
"It seemed the blackest moment of my entire life and I cried at their loss," Wendt revealed.
After the accident, NASA, and in particular Apollo 1 back- up astronaut Wally Schirra who was to command the next mission, demanded North American hire Wendt and give him full control of the white room and spacecraft.
Wendt's first task was to identify the changes and develop the emergency procedures for the flight crew and his team on the pad, so that such an emergency would not happen again.
It was his commitment to their safety that earned Wendt the respect of the astronauts.
"Guenter was always a welcome sight in the white room," wrote the late Gordon Cooper, one of the first seven U.S. astronauts and the last to fly a solo Mercury mission. "He was the very essence of integrity and reliability and gave us a terrific boost in confidence on every launch."
But even the spacemen were under Wendt's rule when in and around the spacecraft.