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.
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.
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