White Room dictatorGüenter Wendt

Born and educated in Germany, after World War II Wendt came to the U.S., since there were few opportunities to work in engineering in Germany at the time. After he received U.S. citizenship (in 1955), he was immediately hired by McDonnell Aircraft, which had the contract for launch operations at Cape Canaveral. “My job was to prepare the spacecraft and make it as safe as it could be,” Wendt said in 2002. His portion of the job: “closeout” — getting the astronauts in and sealing the hatch of the spacecraft. To do the job well, and cleanly, he invented the “White Room” on the launch pad: the secure environment at the top, by the door. And being in charge of that function, Wendt was the last person the astronauts would see before launch. “I was privileged to send them all off,” Wendt said — from Ham the chimpanzee in 1961, to all the astronauts launched as part of the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab programs (and a few shuttle missions before he retired).

Wendt shakes Wally Schirra’s hand in White Room before the astronaut’s December 1965 flight.

Wendt had strict safety guidelines — and the authority to ensure they were followed. When McDonnell lost their contract, he offered to move to the new contractor, North American Aviation — but only if he still had his authority. They refused to grant it, so he refused to be transferred. In January 1967, then, Wendt wasn’t there during a test of Apollo 1; a fire killed all three astronauts. Other astronauts insisted that NAA bring Wendt back, with full authority. The company agreed. “Yes, I was a dictator,” Wendt said years later. “At that time, we were working under very dangerous conditions. I didn’t have the time to form a committee or ask someone’s opinion or look it up in a book — I had to know. I had the strict obedience of my crew and they had confidence that I knew what the hell I was doing.” While hospitalized for treatment of pneumonia and congestive heart failure, Wendt suffered a stroke. He went to his home in Merritt Island, Fla., to die. He did, on May 3. He was 86.

From This is True for 9 May 2010