Guenter Wendt, 86

Obituary: Engineer Guenter Wendt ruled NASA's launchpad

Astronaut John Glenn, left, nicknamed engineer Guenter Wendt
Astronaut John Glenn, left, nicknamed engineer Guenter Wendt "pad F?hrer" because of his strict management style. (Nasa)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Martin Weil
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 6, 2010

Guenter Wendt, 86, a driven and disciplined German-born engineer who ran operations at the launchpad before some of America's most celebrated space missions, died May 3 at his home in Merritt Island, Fla. He had congestive heart failure and complications from a stroke.

From the first sub-orbital flight through the moon landings, Mr. Wendt held one of the key positions in one of the most closely followed of American ventures.

Beginning half a century ago, he was in charge at the launching pad in Cape Canaveral in the tense moments as Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronauts prepared to carry the nation's hopes into space.

"Now I lean in and ask each astronaut, 'Are you happy with your straps, with everything?' Everybody says okay, we shake hands, 'Good luck, guys,' " he once said, recounting the seconds before liftoff.

"Now I request permission to close the hatch, and get the go-ahead.

"Then I look at my inspector, and tell him he is clear up to that sequence. He says yes, he is clear. I turn to the technician, tell him, 'close the hatch.' He and the suit tech close the hatch."

As the man responsible for launch preparations, he was given the title of "pad leader." But he recalled with amusement that astronaut John Glenn had another name: "pad F?hrer."

The sobriquet referred to Mr. Wendt's origins and his management style. One example of his strictness: Mr. Wendt wrote in his 2001 memoir, "The Unbroken Chain," that, "If you came up to the spacecraft, you didn't touch it without my permission."

Said astronaut Pete Conrad: "It's easy to get along with Guenter. All you have to do is agree with him."

In a show of the bluff humor that broke launch tension, astronaut Donn Eisele was said to have asked in mock-German at a key launch moment: "I vonder vere Guenter Vendt?" (The line is repeated by Tom Hanks in the movie "Apollo 13.")

The historic July 16, 1969, Apollo 11 launch allowed Mr. Wendt little opportunity for reflection.

"You are not thinking they are going to the moon," he said. Instead, he said he was thinking, "I got 148 items that must be completed. They must be completed on time.

"You're worried about everything," he said. "Do we have all the right tools? Do we have the right holders? Do we have the right fittings? Do we connect everything correctly? Don't make a mistake when you hook up a line."

Such concern for his task informed his response to Glenn's wife, Annie, when she asked if he could guarantee a safe return.

All he could guarantee, he said he told her, "is that at the time when I say 'Let's go,' there is nothing that I know that could be detrimental to a safe return."

Despite his burdens, those who described him seldom failed to cite his humor, which cropped up even at the tensest times.

He was often the last person the astronauts saw before launch and, if all went well, he said, they had 120 seconds for such matters as the exchange of prank gifts. He recalled presenting Neil Armstrong with a makeshift "key to the moon" fashioned of styrofoam.

Although closely identified with the space program, Mr. Wendt worked not for NASA but for its contractors. A change in contractors kept him away when Apollo 1 caught fire in 1967, killing three astronauts.

Guenter Franz Wendt was born in Berlin on Aug. 28, 1923. His parents soon separated, and his father moved to the United States, which helped the younger Wendt secure U.S. citizenship after having fought for Germany in World War II. He had been a navigator in the Luftwaffe, and his plane was shot down at least once.

His early training as an engineer in Germany led to work in the mid-1950s with McDonnell Aircraft, which assigned him to work on the space program.

His wife, the former Herma Riggert, died in 1993 after more than 40 years of marriage. Survivors include their three daughters, Irina Thompson of Edmonds, Wash., Norma Wendt of St. Augustine, Fla., and Sandra Taylor of Melbourne, Fla.; five grandchildren; a great-grandson; and a great-great-grandson.

On Mr. Wendt's personal Web site, astronaut Wally Schirra wrote that there "was a man who worked at Cape Canaveral who managed to impress every astronaut. We came to trust his judgment and placed our safety in his capable hands. He was meticulous and thorough."

Schirra went on to dub him "the great Guenter Wendt, the dictator of the launchpad."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company