Guenter Wendt, a NASA contractor who was in charge of launch pad activity during the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs, passed away today at 85.
The German-born Wendt ruled his launch pads with an iron fist — so much so that astronauts affectionately dubbed him the “pad fuehrer.”
“It’s easy to get along with Guenter,” astronaut Pete Conrad once said. “All you have to do is agree with him.”
But deep down, astronauts such as Wally Schirra and Gordon Cooper appreciated his attention to detail and his dogged enforcement of the rules designed to keep them alive. As Wendt said in his 2001 memoir:
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 was removed as pad leader when the Gemini program ended and his company, McDonnell Aircraft Corp., lost their contract. That meant Wendt was not in charge during the early days of the Apollo program — and when a launchpad fire claimed the lives of Apollo 1 astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee. After the disaster, astronaut Schirra and the rest of NASA demanded the new contractor bring Wendt back and give him total control over the launch pad.
It’s almost fitting that Wendt passed away during Public Service Recognition Week. This is a good time to remember him, and millions of other civil servants who do the often-unheralded work necessary for our nation to thrive.