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A vital link: Guenter Wendt and the meaning of responsibility

By Francis French

May 21, 2002

— When one thinks of a "rocket scientist" from the movies of the 1950s, a certain image springs to mind: black-rimmed glasses, white hair, a German accent, and an energetic, determined way of explaining things — a belief that if everyone could just see how they understand the solution to a certain conundrum, it could be solved a lot faster.

When meeting Guenter Wendt, it is surprising to see just how much he is the living, breathing embodiment of this Hollywood character.

With a twinkle in his eye, he'll recall episodes from space flight history to all within listening distance, recounted with an enthusiasm that would have you believe they had just happened the day before.

For those who cannot have the privilege of encountering Wendt first-hand, he's recorded many of his best stories in a recent autobiography, "The Unbroken Chain."

Wendt makes it clear in his book that it took — and still takes — a large number of very diverse people to make the space program happen successfully. The astronauts, of course, are the most prominent and visible part of the team. However, before the rocket that carries them can reach the moment of liftoff, a huge group of people have worked to get the mission to that point.

Wendt became part of the team that launched Americans into orbit, and then to the Moon, through his work at the McDonnell Aircraft Corporation, which he joined in 1955, right after becoming an American citizen. Initially working on missile projects at Cape Canaveral, he soon became involved with the company's efforts to manufacture the Mercury spacecraft and launch it.

Things were very different in the early days of the U.S. space program; Cape Canaveral's major launch facilities had yet to be built. Wendt arrived as one of the first five McDonnell employees sent to make this coastal swamp the site for sophisticated, unforgiving hardware used to the most pristine of conditions. They slept in a cable room on folding cots, with cockroaches and snakes a constant annoyance.

As "Pad Leader," Wendt was responsible for all activity around and inside the spacecraft and its ground support equipment. With the exception of the Soviet Union, which was not sharing secrets, no one had created a manned spacecraft before. Compared to the relative sophistication of the Apollo launch facilities, the early Mercury program was far more risky.

Wendt described how lessons were learned as they went.

"In the days of Mercury, everything took place at Cape Canaveral — we didn't have the Kennedy Space Center, any of that. We launched between fifteen and twenty rockets a week! But three out of five would blow up. There went another nosecone!"

"These failure rates would really get to us. There was a lot of stuff we just plain didn't know in the beginning — the handling of cryogenics, hypergolics, pyrotechnics. No one had done it before."

Wendt and the other technicians in the team needed to launch a rocket were operating in a place where explosive fuels and dangerous chemicals were part of their everyday work. While every attempt was made to avoid dangerous situations, these were still the very early years of working with rockets.

Sometimes, it was simply not known what was potentially dangerous. One time, a passing taxi happened to send exactly the same radio signal as the command to destroy a rocket, although this luckily only popped some fuses. It was also found that cars driving in and out in the morning and evening would deflect vital radio command signals away from the rockets, because transmissions bounced off the car roofs.

One example of the potential dangers involved a mishap that occurred in the Spin Test Facility, not far from where Wendt was readying a Redstone and Mercury spacecraft for launch. An Air Force satellite, which included a number of pyrotechnic devices, was being tested to verify it could withstand the spinning it would encounter at launch and in orbit.

"The Air Force people spun the satellite while it was wrapped in plastic, then unwrapped it — and the satellite blew up. Static electricity."

"We had an escape rocket on top of our Mercury capsule, neatly protected with plastic that we had wrapped around it. It was great to keep the rain out. The Air Force told us the kind of plastic they used — the same kind I used on the escape rocket. Whoops! This is when you learn the hard way."

Wendt and the others were quickly realizing that there were many things they needed to plan for during a launch. This was demonstrated during the attempted launch of Mercury-Redstone 1 in Nov. 1960, when the unexpected happened, and decisions had to be made on pure initiative to save the rocket and spacecraft.

The mission was slated to launch an unmanned Mercury spacecraft into a sub-orbital trajectory that an astronaut would soon be duplicating. The launch countdown went smoothly, right up until the moment of ignition. The rocket began to lift off, but then the engine shut down.

"That Redstone lifted off about four inches and set back down on the pad. It had a little kink in it, and we could not depressurize the tank; the tank was building up pressure."

"I went back to the blockhouse, and the next thing I heard was Kurt Debus, the launch director, and McDonnell's top engineer, John Yardley, discussing it. Debus told the pad safety officer to call the base and get some guns — he was going to shoot holes in the oxygen tank to relieve the pressure!"

"John Yardley said, 'like hell you do! I have a perfect, safe spacecraft out there, it's the only one I have right now. If you shoot holes, the thing is going to blow up and I'll have no spacecraft!'"

By then, not only had the escape tower at the top of the Mercury spacecraft launched itself, but the parachutes had also popped out, making the rocket even more prone to tipping over. The Redstone's destruct sequence had also been armed.

"So, what did we do? We got our engineers together to see what we could do to disarm the rocket. The first thing was, we had to get rid of the pressure in the oxygen tank. How could we do that? One of the ways was to send a mechanic out there into the tail end of the rocket, to hook up a quarter-inch nitrogen line and open up a hand valve. However, we didn't know what would happen."

"A guy by the name of Sonny went out, opened it, ran like hell and just about hit the blockhouse when a big stream of oxygen gas, tens of feet long, came out. But nothing blew up."

Hooking up the nitrogen line had caused the oxygen tank's relief valve to open, creating a temporary solution to the pressure problem. However, as the launch team thought about the situation more, they realized that the Mercury spacecraft, its systems now indicating that it had been launched and was in space, might carry out functions that would make the situation even more critical.

"Yardley called me and said we have determined that, due to the sequencing — the main chute came out, the tower had left — the sequencer is looking at a half-G switch. When that thing activates, it will fire the retrorockets into the oxygen tank!"

"So now we started looking for someone to go out there and deactivate the circuitry. However, since the periscope had retracted, we'd have to drill out a bunch of rivets and open the periscope door, because the electrical umbilical plug was under it. Then four jumper wires would have to be plugged in. So we were looking for people with no dependents to volunteer! If the retrorocket had fired, that would have been it."

"After a long discussion, some of us volunteered to go out and do it."

After the gantry was put back in place, Wendt and two others carefully made their way up to the platform next to the spacecraft.

"Before we did, we had pad safety set up a movie camera next to the blockhouse — in case it blew, at least we would know where the pieces went!"

"On the Mercury capsule, the hatch was bolted down with screws — you could move the washer, but the screws had to be tight, so they had to be just matched. They needed to expand on the outside, because of the heat. I had a guy who had meticulously matched each screw to a perfect hole, and stored them on foam."

"We got up there, got the screws out and pitched them behind us. I will never forget that — we thought, he will kill us when he finds out what happened to his matched screws! We got the hatch open, found the two switches — click, click, and we were safe. We saved the spacecraft, though we needed a new booster."

It was later determined that the rocket had shutdown as a result of the Mercury spacecraft and a new, heavier fuel tank made the launch happen milliseconds slower than predicted — just enough to make some relays close too early. A month later, with the problem fixed, the mission was successfully carried out.

It was obvious, however, that the kind of risky situations encountered on that Redstone launch attempt would not be acceptable for launches where there was an astronaut in the spacecraft. Lessons needed to be learned by the team, and fast. Only one more Redstone test launch was planned before a man would be sitting on top.

"We had previously invited the seven astronauts down to watch an Atlas launch. That one blew up. Shepard looked at Glenn and said, 'I hope they fix that thing before we sit on it!'"

"These were the primitive things that we started out with in those days. With manned launches, all of a sudden you had a nosecone that you could not replace — there was a fellow in there that you knew, somebody you talked to, someone you had lunch with. All the rules changed quite a bit."

Wendt needed a strategy that would allow lessons to be learned fast, safety to be foremost, and missions to be frequent and successful. The philosophy he adopted was one that is reflected in the title of his book.

"We all were links in a long chain, and it took the whole damn chain to make it happen. One link was not more important than another — if one link broke, the whole chain was useless."

"The people who made the decisions were right there, and they made the decisions. That's what we got paid for! In general, you like to follow the paperwork, to follow the rules. But sometimes you may not have time to follow the rules, so you act. There were lots of things happening that meant you just had to go with the flow. You showed the people that qualified you to act that you had done your homework."

"Imagine each flight as a jar. There were lots of things that went into the jar. You had different experiments, different people, different approaches. Sometimes you did things in a different way. If you had a problem, you didn't have to go to the head honcho, sometimes your techs knew better than you did how to get rid of the problem."

"I once had a question from the purchasing office, asking how come we had bought boxes and boxes of napkins. We were loading the fuel tanks with cryogenics, where you had to have a vacuum jacket, lining — hydrogen is very difficult to handle. If you had a small leak, you might have to stop everything to start fixing it. But what the technicians found out was that you could take one of these napkins, drop it in a bucket of water, slap it on the lining, and it would freeze instantly!"

Wendt learned that the best way to keep things safe and on schedule was to trust his team, believing the person who knew a particular system best was the one to trust, whatever their job title was.

"Frequently the technicians knew more about something than the engineers. The engineers knew the technical things, but the technician was the guy who had to go in and change it. You had to use the people, and not be bashful if someone asked why you were using a tech and not an engineer. Forget about that! There were people who knew what they were doing, often better than you did, so you didn't assume you knew it better. That is how you learn."

Working at the fastest possible pace to make the program a success, Wendt soon found himself a vital participant on an important day in history; shaking hands with Alan Shepard as the astronaut was strapped into his Freedom 7 Mercury spacecraft, ready to become the first American in space. Wendt couldn't however afford himself the luxury of thinking what a momentous occasion it was that he was witnessing.

"There was no time for talking emotion. You had a job to do, and you had better not make a mistake. That was your main thought — you could not make a mistake. Make sure you don't, because there are some you could not remedy. We had a one-track mind — all of your mind is set on what you need to do. There were hundreds of others all at that moment watching things, making sure that they do everything correctly. Reflecting was not on our checklist! The astronaut is there, you are fighting the clock, making sure you don't make a mistake, that everything is right — you didn't have time ."

With no sign of the serious problems that had plagued the early Redstone launches, Shepard's rocket fired smoothly and climbed away from the pad. Wendt finally allowed himself to feel a surge of emotion at what he describes as the most beautiful sight he had ever seen.

"When the rocket cleared the tower, then I could reflect, I could relax. There was nothing I nor my crew could do anymore. Until that time, you didn't have the chance."

"Even with engine ignition, you could have a shutdown. If that damn thing shut down, you had better be ready to vent the fuel and oxidizer quick — you could not relax. When we had liftoff, now, there was nothing I could do — I released the technicians to go back and have a party!"

Just because the first American had now been launched into space and returned safely, it did not mean that the pace grew any less relentless for Wendt. There was still the matter of achieving an orbital flight — and before that milestone could be accomplished, President Kennedy issued another challenge, to send a man to the Moon and return him safely. Wendt worked tirelessly on each flight, as the Mercury program worked through a sequence of successful flights and the Gemini program began.

"You had time between the flights to evaluate [and] then concentrate on the next one. You had to wait until a flight came back to know what went wrong. You had to set your mind certain ways. The week before launch, I could not care less if the washer at home quit, or if my wife's car engine quit, she would have to get a rental car. If the roof leaked, it leaked. I wouldn't take care of it — I couldn't. I had a one-track mind, making sure all the things I needed to do were in the right place, and that I knew what to do. If I got handed 15 pages of technical changes, I had better make sure I knew what all the changes were and see if they could hurt us."

Wendt became good friends with the astronauts who were trusting their lives to his careful work. With the press following the astronauts everywhere they went, they would often escape, sleeping on Wendt's couch. Wendt ensured that even when he was not home, they could get in and have some much-needed privacy.

"We used to live with the astronauts [and] we were very intimate. Frequently, when we did a critical test, they'd come back and say, no, I didn't understand the alarm I got from that system. Can you get together with some guys, come to the crew quarters and talk it over tonight? So I would round up some people that understood that system, and we would explain it to them. So we were in very close contact with each other — that's the way we played the game."

Wendt even handled co-pilot duties in a Gemini test for one of the astronauts, helping them prepare in ways that were not strictly part of his job description. He understood that the astronauts were feeling the stress of launch too, but in different ways and moments than he was.

"Astronauts are in a different frame of mind at launch time. They have done so many simulations, so many practice runs, that they know they don't have anything to do until they get going. They're thinking, for heaven's sake, let me go! There is nothing they could do. Look at [Gordon] Cooper — he was so relaxed, he went to sleep on me in the spacecraft! Each of us has a different frame of mind.

"Imagine you are going on a long trip. Your alarm has to go off, you have to get dressed, your car does not have a flat tire, you do not get hit on the way to the airport. You make it to the airport in time, you check in, your plane is there. Finally you go, sit in the plane and go, aaah... got it made! You may have worried about all the other things that could go wrong, but there comes a time when you feel you have it made. At liftoff, that was my time to relax. I'd want to catch up on my sleep — except now I would have to go to the damn party!"

Wendt says he saw a difference at first in his relationship with the second group of NASA astronauts. While he and the first group had been through new, untested waters together, the second group saw the process of launch as less mysterious, and were not initially so understanding of him telling them what to do.

As the Gemini program continued however, they grew to understand his way of doing things. Soon, they were playing practical jokes on each other, such as a series of jokes Wendt recounts in his book where in response to Pete Conrad putting a snake in his desk, Wendt sewed the sleeves of Conrad's jacket shut.

One tradition that since has become well-known, was the exchange of joke gifts just before the astronauts entered the spacecraft. It was one of Wendt's ways of helping the astronauts relax.

"The reason I originally started out with giving little gifts to the astronauts just before launch was because the tension was so tremendous. You had to be able to laugh at yourself once in a while, to help relieve it. There was no difference in tension for an astronaut flying for the first time, or someone flying for the fourth."

"There was also a fine line between something being funny and being insulting, and you could not be insulting! They were normally inside stories that meant something to us, maybe not to the rest of the world, but it relieved the tensions. The guys knew, 'Hey, I'm going to be okay.'"

The second group of astronauts grew to respect Wendt as much as the first, as they realized he would be willing to risk his life for their safety as much as the rules allowed.

"If I heard a bang in the spacecraft, what would I do? We had some rules — the deal was, if we had closed the hatch and there was an explosion inside, if I could assume that the guys were ambulatory, we would open the hatch and spend twenty seconds getting them out, then we all would depart."

"It was different if that bang had created what we called a emergency condition red, a dangerous situation where you didn't know what might happen, such as runaway pressure in a tank — if you cannot stop it, the tank will blow up. If the people in there were injured, and could not get out, we would leave them there, and they knew it. It worked both ways."

"We had a fire rescue crew that would come in, if we got hurt. My people might be lying all over the place. When they came in, they would open the spacecraft and pull the astronauts out first, before they touched any of us! We knew that was how the rules were played. We played by some rather harsh rules."

The harsh risks of the environment that Wendt and the astronauts were working in would soon become all too apparent, as the program was dealt a blow that could have finished it right there.

The Gemini program was coming to an end. The Mercury and Gemini spacecraft built by McDonnell would be superceded by a new spacecraft, Apollo, built by North American Aviation. As a McDonnell employee, Wendt found himself out of the manned space program, too. He applied to become the pad leader for North American, but his desire to run the launches with his previous level of authority resulted in his being turned down. He worked instead on test firing anti-tank missiles for McDonnell, all the while continuing to keep up with the Apollo engineering reports.

Then one evening, he heard the horrific news on TV: the Apollo 1 crew had died in a pad test fire. Wendt cried, remembering the happy times he had spent working and socializing with those men.

Both NASA and North American realized that they needed Wendt to bring the required level of safety and efficiency to the launch operations. He was soon offered the position he had hoped for, and this time with all the authority he needed. Without that authority, Wendt felt he would not have been able to maintain that safety was the priority, ahead of cost, bureaucracy and the relentless deadline.

"It got to you, the paperwork. The paperwork bothered us more in the process of doing things. In the critical phases, such as launch, you have one set of papers, and you've the people who can make the decisions. For instance, if I thought something did not work, or if I screwed up, I'd call the test conductor on the headset and request a hold."

"Now, a hold may have penalized my company $50,000 in the early days. Later on, a bunch more. That's all right! The company might not have liked it, but then we could fix whatever needed to be fixed, and launch in the next launch window. I could not make a go again, I could only release my hold."

Having reviewed the findings of the Apollo 1 review board, Wendt identified safety changes needed, and set to work creating a system and a team of people who could deal with unexpected and unforeseen incidents. Each person was required to be in top physical condition, necessary if a fully-suited, unconscious astronaut had to be pulled out of a spacecraft. Wendt gave back to the space program the much-needed balance between safety and speed.

"You were always under pressure and your enemy was always the launch clock. With an Apollo launch count of five and half days, I was begging the chief test conductor for an extra 10 minutes after the tanking, because when I went out I had to complete 142 work items! So 10 minutes was a hell of a lot of time."

"When we exchanged gifts with the astronauts, we had precisely two and a half minutes to do that. That was the time when the technician went in and arranged the cables for the astronauts to go into the spacecraft. You were always looking at the clock. But, at the same time, you had to live with your conscience. You could not afford to hide anything. It was an interesting game!"

In Oct. 1968, Wendt ensured that the Apollo 7 astronauts were safely readied for launch into orbit. The U.S. space program was back on track. With the next flight, he was helping to send the first people to the Moon. It was not long after that that he found himself exchanging gifts with the Apollo 11 crew, set to fulfill the dream that had driven the space program.

Wendt observes in his book that he considers the Apollo 11 astronauts "the first crew who weren't really a crew." With little camaraderie between the three, they did not appear to him to gel as a team. But everyone smiled as Wendt presented the crew with a ceremonial "Key to the Moon", and helped them into their spacecraft couches for their historic flight.

While it is often reported that Wendt closed the hatch on this and many other missions, the stories are simply not true, as Wendt explained.

"I never closed any hatch, that was my technicians. The sequence is very simple. We are in the launch count on Apollo, all the astronauts are in. Suit tech takes another look; he is happy. At the foot end is the backup astronaut — he looks at everything, sets some switches down there. The suit tech comes out. I want the backup astronaut to climb underneath the couch and come out. Now he's out."

"Now I lean in and ask each astronaut, are you happy with your straps, with everything? Everybody says okay, we shake hands, good luck, guys. Now I request permission to close the hatch, and get the go-ahead. Then I look at my inspector, and tell him he is clear up to that sequence. He says yes, he is clear. I turn to the technician, tell him, close the hatch. He and the suit tech close the hatch. That was the normal sequence."

With the spacecraft launched to the Moon, Wendt's part of the mission was over, and he watched fascinated as the television pictures came in of the first steps onto the Moon, an event he describes in his book as the most momentous of the century. He hoped it would be the first of many landings, leading swiftly to manned missions to Mars. Unfortunately, that was not to be. Wendt knew that public support was one of the vital links in the Apollo chain, and he was saddened to see it quickly weaken as further flights were made to the Moon.

Wendt continued to work on the programs that followed: Skylab, Apollo-Soyuz, and the first space shuttle flights. By 1985, with operations becoming more routine, he was concerned that there was too much trust in the still-new shuttle system with a little complacency setting in. Wendt saw his fears realized when he saw Challenger launched on mission STS-51L, and destroyed in front of his eyes.

"The Challenger accident came as the result of a political override by a company executive. The chief engineer of Martin Thiokol recommended not to launch with the O-ring problem they had and he would not sign the piece of paper that would clear them for launch. So NASA decided to go over his head to the President of Thiokol, who then talked to the Vice President and told him to sign it. Naturally, as an engineer, I am prejudiced — but this is the most stupid thing, when you overrule your own chief engineer. You don't do that; but this is what can happen."

Wendt was on the Kennedy Space Center accident review board, once again investigating why astronauts had died in a spacecraft. He was pleased to see the changes made within the program that led to the return to space flights with STS-26. Feeling that NASA was in good hands and on the right track again, he began to look into retirement, and left the program four months later.

Wendt takes a devilish delight in describing times when he went against management decisions and came out on top, or otherwise convinced people that his way was the right way. It is impossible to assess how many of his contributions ensured that crews safely and successfully reached the Moon and continued to explore space in the shuttle, but his refusal to ever compromise on safety is a lesson that should always be remembered whenever a spacecraft is being tested and launched.

"A lot of people were under a lot of stress with the Apollo deadline [of the end of the decade]. But for certain things, stretching out how long it takes does not help. You have got to keep on going, but in an orderly fashion. Never let anyone pressure you."

"I had one discussion with John Yardley, the guy wanted to check some pyros and I would not let him. He was the electrical engineering chief, and I was telling him he could not. He went to the base manager, who called me. I told him my reasons: if [Yardley] screwed up, he would have blown us up."

"Sometimes you have to make a stand, without caring what the consequences are. You have to be living with your own conscience. It does not matter if you lost a lot of money, or got fired. You can't be telling yourself later that you killed somebody because you screwed up. You have to live with your conscience."

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