I Know Where Guenter Wendt

August 28, 2011 by
Filed under: Space Pioneers 

You may recall a certain scene in the movie Apollo 13 in which Jim Lovell (played by Tom Hanks) notes the disappearance of one of the launch pad workers who’d only moments before been visible through the capsule window. He quips, “I vonder vere Guenter vent” in a distinctive German accent, making a clever play on words with the man’s name. He was talking about Guenter Wendt, a German immigrant to the United States following World War II who had joined the space program in its early days – even before Project Mercury – and had climbed through the ranks to the position of Pad Leader.

Today marks Guenter’s eighty-eighth birthday. Sadly he left us last year, and it’s worth taking the time to remember him and what he gave to his adopted country.

First, he came to the US with so much to offer. Rather than arriving with his hand out and demanding free government assistance, he offered us his tremendous experience in flight and engineering, which he put to good use beginning with McDonnell Aircraft Corporation.

Beyond that, he offered passion and dedication to every job he took, glamorous or otherwise. I was privileged to talk with him in 2004 about the fascinating times in his life in aerospace and was rewarded with a candid dialog I hadn’t expected. Upon arriving in the US, his search for a job was relentless. After 140 applications he came to a concrete mixing company in need of a truck mechanic. The foreman pointed out, “but you don’t have any references.” Not one to be dissuaded by challenges, he countered, “I’ll make you a deal – It was a Wednesday – I’ll get my tools and work for you until Friday. If I cut the mustard, you pay me and hire me. If not, just tell me goodbye, and you don’t owe me a thing.” The guy said, “That’s not a bad deal. Ok. Come on, and bring your tools.” He got the job, and that was that. If only more folks these days had the same attitude towards finding employment. Here was a man who had been a successful flight test engineer on (at that time) new high performance aircraft who was negotiating for the position of truck mechanic. Rather than regarding it as beneath him, he applied his typical dedication to remain gainfully employed until he could find something closer to his passion. That’s what we call character. And it paid off. He did find his way back to a career in flight. First with McDonnell where he applied his knowledge and experience in designing missile systems to defend the US. It was here in 1958 where he was first bitten by the manned space flight bug.

At that point, NASA was still known as NACA, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, and Project Mercury – the first manned space program – was yet to be born. Manned space flight at that time rest exclusively with the Air Force’s Dyna-Soar program, and the range that would become Kennedy Space Center was still undeveloped and snake-infested beaches and swamp.

That was not the situation for long. Months later NASA was born and the US entered into a race to space with Project Mercury, the first in a three-tier effort to reach the moon that would be followed by Gemini then Apollo. Guenter was right there in the thick of it. He and four others were the vanguard from McDonnell to go to Cocoa Beach. From Mercury through Gemini, he was helping to pave the way for humans on the grandest adventure of all time. By the time of Apollo, McDonnell had lost the contract to North American. Deke Slayton, who was chosen as one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts and later went on to become NASA’s Chief Astronaut, went to Guenter and asked him to change over to North American.

The company was initially unwilling to allow him what he needed to do the job. He said, ”I talked to them and told them the way I operate. The authority I need. Complete personnel control.”  They couldn’t agree to let me have that.” They said a new hire can’t have that authority. I said, ‘Fine. I can’t help you.’”

And so he stayed with McDonnell. But then came the Apollo 1 fire in which Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee lost their lives while conducting a ground test inside the capsule. An ignition source and flammable materials combined in a cabin pressurized with highly flammable pure oxygen to start the fire. The situation was further exacerbated by a poorly designed hatch and woefully inadequate emergency preparedness that failed even to recognize the operation as hazardous.

Shortly thereafter,” Guenter went on to say, “I got a call from Slayton. He said, ‘We’d like you to run our pad operations.’ I said I can’t do that unless I have the authority I need. He said, ‘I have a guy here who says you can have whatever you need.’”Ok. Put him on the phone.’ The guy introduced himself as Mr. Bergen – I didn’t know who the hell “Bergen” was – He said that Slayton had explained how I do business – on more of a dictatorial basis – and they were pleased to provide whatever I needed. So I said OK. Here is the way I operate. Here is what I need. Here is the way I will do things. If you agree to that, I’ll come over and work for you. They explained again that they had been instructed to hire me.” I said, ‘By the way. Who the hell is that guy, Bergen?’ They said, ‘You see that organizational chart over there? The guy at the top of the pyramid is Bergen, President of North American Aviation.

We’ll never know how things would have gone had Guenter been in charge of pad operations that fateful day, but I’d bet my reputation as an aerospace engineer that the operation would have been seen as hazardous and plans made to emergency egress those astronauts. One of the things that set him apart was to “pre-act” in what he called the “what if” game. It bothered him that people too often simply reacted to problems rather than anticipate and plan for them. He was not willing to leave things to chance. Here again, his character shines through, and we would all do well to head the lessons of his life.

No one ever answered Lovell’s question, but I think I know vere Guenter Wendt. He’s slipped the surly bonds of Earth to join Gus Grissom, Christa McAuliffe and all the other heros who dedicated themselves to space flight. And how lucky we are that he found his way to our shores, fortunate to have had his guidance and how blessed by his friendship.

Happy birthday Guenter. We’ll not forget you.



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