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Slayton, Dekefree

(01 March 1924–13 June 1993)
  • Roger D. Launius

Deke Slayton

With a model of the Apollo-Soyuz capsules docked together in the foreground, 1974.

Courtesy of NASA/JSC (NIX S74-15240).

Slayton, Deke (01 March 1924–13 June 1993), astronaut, was born Donald Kent Slayton in Sparta, Wisconsin, the son of Charles Sherman Slayton and Victoria Adelia Larson Slayton, dairy farmers. Young Slayton was educated in the Sparta public schools. Thrilled from an early age with airplanes, he entered the U.S. Army Air Corps as a private unassigned during World War II and received his wings in April 1943 after completing flight training at Vernon and Waco, Texas. He flew B-25s with the 340th Bombardment Group and completed fifty-six combat missions in Europe. After this combat tour, Slayton returned to Columbia, South Carolina, where he became a B-25 instructor pilot. With the war virtually over in Europe, Slayton went to the Pacific in April 1945 and flew seven combat missions in B-26 bombers with the 319th Bombardment Group.

After World War II Slayton enrolled at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis on the GI Bill. In 1949 he received a bachelor of science degree in aeronautical engineering. He then went to work for the Boeing Aircraft Company in Seattle, Washington, before being recalled to military service in 1951, serving with the Minnesota Air National Guard. At that point Slayton decided to make the air force his career; he served in several assignments before attending the USAF Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California, in June 1955. He then worked as a military test pilot.

In 1955 Slayton married Marjory Lunney of Los Angeles; they had a son. The marriage ended in divorce. In 1983 he married Bobbie Osborn. They had no children; however, he helped raise Bobbie's two children.

In April 1959 NASA selected Slayton as one of the first seven astronauts for Project Mercury. Slayton and his fellow astronauts participated in a press conference at NASA Headquarters in Washington, D.C., in which the media characterized them as the best the nation had to offer. Certainly they carried on their shoulders hopes and dreams of the nation, now engaged in a “cold war” with Soviet communism. Slayton was irritable at the press conference. He nudged Alan Shepard and whispered, “They're applauding us like we've already done something, like we were heroes or something.”

Slayton was scheduled to pilot the Mercury-Atlas 7 mission, but in August 1959 flight surgeons determined that he had a mild, occasional irregular heart palpitation. They grounded him. He now became the de facto head of the astronauts, and in September 1962 NASA named him coordinator of astronaut activities, making him responsible for the operation of the astronaut office. In November 1963, he resigned his commission as an air force major to assume the role of director of flight crew operations.

For a decade he oversaw the astronauts, making crew assignments and managing the full range of astronaut activities. Slayton personally chose all of the crews, determining among other things that Neil Armstrong would be the first person to walk on the Moon in July 1969. In March 1972, following a comprehensive review of his medical status, Slayton was restored to full flight status and certified eligible for space flights.

In the summer of 1975 (15–24 July) Slayton made his only space flight as Apollo docking module pilot of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) mission, which culminated in the first meeting in space between American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts. Completing the U.S. flight crew for this nine-day Earth-orbiting mission were Thomas P. Stafford (Apollo commander) and Vance D. Brand (Apollo command module pilot). In the Soviet spacecraft were cosmonauts Alexey Leonov (Soyuz commander) and Valeriy Kubasov (Soyuz flight engineer). The rendezvous and docking of the two nations' spacecrafts was symbolic of the political détente between the United States and the Soviet Union. During the mission Slayton told a worldwide audience, “It feels great. The only thing that upsets me is to have missed this fun for the last 16 years. I never believed it was quite as great as it really is.”

After completing ASTP, Slayton stayed with NASA in various positions until his formal retirement on 27 February 1982. He then founded Space Services Inc., of Houston, a company that developed rockets for small commercial payloads. At the time of his death in League City, Texas, he was director of EER System's Space Services Division in Houston.

His remains were cremated and scattered on his family farm near Sparta, Wisconsin.

Bibliography

There is no formal collection of Slayton's papers. Sizable biographical files on him are located in the NASA Historical Reference Collection, NASA Headquarters, Washington, D.C.; at the National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; and in the official records of NASA, Record Group 255 of the National Archives and Records Administration. Slayton published with Alan Shepard a memoir of the race to the Moon, Moonshot: The Inside Story of America's Race to the Moon (1994), and a formal autobiography, Deke! U.S. Manned Space, From Mercury to the Shuttle (1994), written with Michael Cassutt. Excellent biographical accounts are in Courtney G. Brooks, James M. Grimwood, and Loyd S. Swenson, Jr., Chariots for Apollo: A History of Manned Lunar Spacecraft (Washington, DC: NASA Special Publication–4205, 1979); Edward Clinton Ezell and Linda Neuman Ezell, The Partnership: A History of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (Washington, DC: NASA Special Publication–4209, 1978); Andrew Chaikin, A Man on the Moon: The Voyages of the Apollo Astronauts (1994); and Barton C. Hacker and James M. Grimwood, On the Shoulders of Titans: A History of Project Gemini (Washington, DC: NASA SP–4203, 1977). Obituaries are in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Aviation Week & Space Technology, Space News, and Washington Post, all 14 June 1993.