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
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Business Development Manager / Sales - OTE £45,000

£35000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a solutions / s...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £45,000

£18000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Sales Executive is required t...

Recruitment Genius: Test Development Engineer

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you inspired to bring new a...

Recruitment Genius: Trainee Motor Engineer

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific