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Guenter Wendt — The Führer of the White Room

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He was one of the many silent unsung heroes of the space race.

From Freedom 7, the first ever U.S. astronaut in space, to Apollo 17, the last ever Moon mission, Guenter Wendt was closely involved in one of the greatest adventures of mankind.

Wendt during the Freedom 7 Launch. Nearly fifty years ago, in the heart of the space race in Cape Canaveral, tensions were high and unfortunately the rockets weren't going high enough. It was here and now that Wendt was a part of group of technicians who managed the launching pad, helping astronauts set themselves in various rockets for the missions that would carry them into history. His team was responsible for not only helping the astronauts sitting in the capsules, but also to make sure that the capsule was secured properly. Although history would shine more on the men who ventured beyond the Earth, the men who went there never forgot the man who had come to be known as the "Pad Fuhrer."

He was originally called Pad Leader but it was John Glenn who would give him that title due to him being German and the austere air around him whenever there was a flight. In his own words from his 2001 memoir, The Unbroken Chain he wrote, "If you came up to the spacecraft, you didn't touch it without my permission."

However not all his interaction with the astronauts was cold or distant. When Neil Armstrong was about to be seated in the command module of Apollo 11 for its historic mission, Wendt presented Neil Armstrong with a makeshift "key to the moon" made out of styrofoam. In turn, the astronaut presented Wendt with a "space taxi" ticket good for travel between "two planets."

Wendt with Apollo 11 Astronauts, Armstrong, Collins and Aldrin 

Wendt was not present at the Apollo 1 fire, the accident that shook not only NASA but America itself, because of a change of contractors. It was in this fire that Ed White, Gus Grissom and Roger Chafee lost their lives. Wendt recalls the moment when he heard of the accident at home watching television in his book, "I remember the sudden weight I felt in my shoulders. I slumped down in my chair as if I weighed a thousand pounds."

He knew all too well about the risks of space travel and wasn't defensive about commenting on it. When John Glenn's wife, Annie, asked if he could guarantee his safe return he told her, "When I say 'Let's go,' there is nothing that I know that could be detrimental to a safe return."

Guenter Franz Wendt was born in Berlin, Germany on August 28, 1923. He had been a navigator in the Luftwaffe, and his plane was shot down at least once when he fought for Germany in World War II. After the war, his engineering skills landing him a job with McDonnell Aircraft during the mid-50s. He was at the right place in the right time. Like the powerful combustion of a rocket's exhaust, the space race was at full force.

During his career he worked for McDonnell Aircraft and North American Aviation. He continued to work at Kennedy Space Center during the early Space Shuttle flights until retiring in 1989. He died May 3 at his home in Merritt Island, Florida. He had congestive heart failure and complications from a stroke. He is survived by three daughters, five grandchildren, a great-grandson, and a great-great-grandson.

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About Khaver Siddiqi

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/dr-dreadful/ Dr Dreadful

    An excellent and fascinating obituary, Khaver, thank you.

    What a job that must have been: closing the capsule door before each launch, always knowing that he might be the last person to see those astronauts alive.