Apollo 7 and the Importance of Guenter Wendt
Gemini 12 walkout - Credit: NASA

Apollo 7 and the Importance of Guenter Wendt

10/10/2018Written by Dan Kendall

The story of Guenter Wendt - Pad Leader

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Apollo 7 crew, from left to right, Donn Eisele, Wally Schirra, and Walt Cunningham – Credit: NASA

The 11 October 1968 was an emotional day for everyone at NASA. Less than two years after the Apollo 1 fire had killed three astronauts, the crew of Apollo 7 prepared for take-off. They could be forgiven for being a little nervous. They were reassured though by the presence on the launchpad of one man – Guenter Wendt.

When Apollo 7 astronauts Wally Schirra, Donn Eisele and Walt Cunningham had been appointed to the mission, they had only one condition – Guenter Wendt must be reinstated to his role of Pad Leader. Only then were they prepared to fly the mission that Apollo 1 had been scheduled to undertake.

Guenter Wendt (right) sharing a joke with astronaut John Glenn - Credit: NASA

But who was Guenter Wendt?

More than 400,000 people helped to put Neil Armstrong on the Moon, as huge numbers of contractors, scientists, engineers, and more played their part behind the scenes. Apollo was a huge team effort, but most of these people are not well known today. Guenter Wendt was one of these unsung heroes, and the 50th anniversary of Apollo 7 is a great time to pay tribute to a man that became a legend on the launchpad.

Born in Berlin in 1924, Wendt left Germany after World War II having served as a flight engineer aboard Luftwaffe night fighters. On emigrating to America, he found work at McDonnell Aircraft Corporation – becoming involved in the early days of US spaceflight working for one of NASA’s contractors.

Guenter Wendt presents John Young with a joke set of pliers before Gemini 10 - Credit: NASA

Working his way up to the role of Pad Leader, Wendt was the final person astronauts saw before they launched into space. Wendt and his team were responsible for the final checks to spacecraft before take-off, sealing the crew in and making sure they were ready. He carried out his job like a military dictator, removing staff from the launchpad if they so-much-as flicked a switch without his say so.

This control and attention to detail meant that the astronauts trusted him with their lives. Wendt became something of a good luck charm, often being presented with gifts just before take-off.

Joke cheque presented to to Wendt by the Gemini 12 crew
The crew of Gemini 12 walk to their launch, with their joke cheque being carried behind them - Credit: NASA

One such gift was this joke cheque given to him by the crew of Gemini 12 – Jim Lovell and Buzz Aldrin.

Wendt had been Pad Leader for every crewed flight throughout the Mercury and Gemini programmes, but this final Gemini mission was scheduled to be his last. The company he worked for had not won the contract to manufacture the Apollo Command Module, so his time as Pad Leader was coming to an end.

In appreciation for his work, Lovell and Aldrin presented a joke gift cheque to Wendt in the White Room – the small room that astronauts passed through at the end of the walkway to access their spacecraft. With a tongue-in-cheek reference to his German heritage, the retirement cheque was made out for the value of 1 million Deutsch Marks.

What I’ve always loved about this object is that the date has been changed on it twice, after delays to the Gemini 12 launch. I like to imagine there was a last-minute panicked conversation between Lovell and Aldrin about getting a new date taped on to the cheque – when let’s face it, they should have had other things to worry about!

You can see the cheque being carried to the launchpad by a technician in the picture, just behind the two astronauts.

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At the National Space Centre: See Wendt's cheque on display in our Space Oddities gallery
Wendt (left) shakes hands with Schirra before the Gemini 6 flight - Credit: NASA

As the Apollo programme began, Wendt was no longer in control of the White Room. This meant that on 27 January 1967 it was not Wendt that sealed the Apollo 1 crew inside their Command Module. The accidental fire that broke out inside the spacecraft left no time for the crew to be rescued by the ground team. There was nothing Wendt could have done had he been there, but he would always wonder about what might have been.

In the aftermath of the fire, Wally Schirra was appointed Commander of Apollo 7 and given the task of flying the Command Module in space, carrying out tests Apollo 1 would have done. Schirra was one of the Mercury 7 – the first American astronaut group – and he was not the sort of person to stand back and let other people make decisions. Schirra knew the risks and demanded that Guenter Wendt be given his job back as Pad Leader.

Wendt was delighted to return to his previous role. Ultimately, Apollo 1 was the only mission from Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo where he was not at the launch controlling the pad.

Wendt's Apollo 11 joke gifts - Credit: drdadsephemera.blogspot.com/Dallas Campbell

Astronauts often slept on Wendt’s sofa to escape the media spotlight that followed them night and day. He formed a close bond with them. This can be seen in the long list of gifts given to Wendt just before launch. As the Apollo 11 crew prepared to leave for the Moon, Neil Armstrong gave Wendt a token for a space-taxi ride ‘good between any two planets’, whilst Buzz Aldrin presented a condensed version of the Bible.

The third crew member, Michael Collins, carried a brown paper bag with him to the launchpad. Inside was a frozen trout attached to a plaque that read “Guenter Wendt Trophy Trout”, in honour of the Pad Leader being an avid fisherman.

Tom Stafford presents a joke matchstick to light the rocket on Gemini 9A - Credit: NASA

Most of the gifts hit the mark – such as Tom Stafford carrying a giant match to light the rocket on Gemini 9A – but some can only really be described as ‘in-jokes’. For example, the Apollo 14 crew presented him with a black plastic helmet with “Col. Guenter Klink” written on it – a reference to Colonel Klink, the bumbling Nazi prisoner of war commandant in the American sitcom, ‘Hogan’s Heroes’. The Nazi swastika on the helmet understandably caused NASA some PR headaches.

Guenter Wendt - Credit: NASA

Apollo 7 was a critical step on the way to landing on the Moon. It was a crucial mission and is often overlooked – just as Guenter Wendt’s contribution has been. Now 50 years after Apollo 7’s launch, it feels fitting to pay tribute to both the crew and to the man who sent them on their way.

As Apollo 12 astronaut Pete Conrad once said, “It’s easy to get along with Guenter, all you have to do is agree with him!”

And the one thing all the Apollo astronauts agreed on was that Guenter Wendt was indispensable.

In celebration of Apollo 7, the National Space Centre pays tribute to one of the forgotten stars behind the Moon landings - Guenter Wendt.

Join us for our Go 7! Apollo activities during October half-term 13 October to 4 November 2018.

About the author: Dan Kendall is the Curator at the National Space Centre.