Günter Wendt: Space engineer who fought for Germany in the Second World War then worked on Nasa’s Apollo programme

Günter Wendt was a legendary figure of the team that launched the Americans into orbit, and then to the Moon. But unlike many of the German engineers and scientists who played a decisive part in US space achievements, Günter Wendt was not recruited as one of Werner von Braun's Peenemünde colleagues.

Born in Berlin in 1924, after the Hitler Youth and compulsory labour service, Wendt completed an apprenticeship in aircraft manufacturing at the Henschel Flugzengwerke in Berlin in 1942, graduating 34th out of an intake of 500. Inevitably he was called up for service with the Luftwaffe. After basic training in France he was ordered to the Aviation Test Centre near Berlin to be trained on the new airborne radar systems being installed in German aircraft.

As a flight engineer/radar operator on a Junkers 88G night fighter he took part in the rapidly escalating air war over Germany. Shot down by a British Mosquito fighter bomber, he parachuted to safety. Not long afterwards he was brought down again, this time by German anti- aircraft fire. Once again luck was with him. As the Luftwaffe ran out of fuel, he transferred to the paratroopers taking part on the ill-fated Ardennes offensive in the winter of 1944-45. Finally, he was demobilised by the British in Hamburg in the summer of 1945.

After four years of odd-jobbing in devastated post-war Germany, Wendt re-established contact with his father, who had emigrated from Germany to the US in 1926. As an American citizen he was able to sponsor Günter, who started a new chapter in St Louis in 1949. After working as a motor mechanic he got back into aviation as maintenance mechanic and then as an instructor for Osark Air Lines, a new, small, company operating from St Louis to Chicago.

In 1952 Wendt gained US citizenship, which enabled him to work as a structural engineer with McDonnell Aircraft in St Louis. He moved on to the new manned Mercury space programme in 1958, transferring to Florida in 1959. In those early days Cape Canaveral's major launch facilities had yet to be built, and Wendt arrived as one of the first five sent to transform this coastal swamp. They slept in a cable room on folding cots, cockroaches and snakes their constant companions.

It was there that Wendt began his tour as capsule pad leader or "Pad Führer," as John Glenn later named him. Wendt controlled the "White Room", that area around the space capsule that led to the spacecraft hatch, and was responsible for all activity around and inside the spacecraft and its ground support equipment. Thus he was the last person to "tuck in" the astronauts and order the technician to close the hatch. He was at the launch pads for the entire Mercury and Gemini programmes (1961–1966).

In January 1967, Wendt, still with McDonnell, was supervising the test range in Titusville, Florida. Since Nasa changed contractors for the Apollo programme to North American Aviation (soon to become North American Rockwell), he was not involved with the Apollo 1 spacecraft, in which a cabin fire caused the deaths of Gus Grissom, Edward H White and Roger Chaffee.

Grissom's back-up and replacement on the Apollo 7 flight, Wally Schirra, insisted on having Wendt back in charge of the pad crew for his flight, and convinced the chief astronaut Deke Slayton to get North American to hire him. Schirra persuaded North American's vice-president and general manager for launch operations, Bastian Hello, to change Wendt's shift from midnight to daytime so he could be pad leader for Apollo. Wendt then worked on the manned phase of the Apollo programme (1968–1975) at the Kennedy Space Centre.

Wendt retired in 1989 but remained interested in space travel. This helped him gain a foothold in Hollywood as a consultant on several space movies. He also assisted in the recovery of the Mercury capsule Liberty Bell 7 from the depths of the ocean and co-authored his autobiography The Unbroken Chain (2001). Wendt was a recipient of Nasa's Letter of Appreciation award and in 2009 he received a Nasa Lifetime Achievement Award.

David Childs



Günter Wendt, space engineer: born Berlin 28 August 1929; died Merritt Island, Florida 3 May 2010.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
footballHe started just four months ago
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect