Deke Slayton

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Donald K. Slayton
NASA Astronaut
Nationality American
Status Deceased
Born (1924-03-01)March 1, 1924
Sparta, Wisconsin, U.S.
Died June 13, 1993(1993-06-13) (aged 69)
League City, Texas, U.S.
Other names
Donald Kent Slayton
Previous occupation
Bomber pilot, test pilot
University of Minnesota, B.S. 1949
Rank Major, USAF
Time in space
9d 01h 28m
Selection 1959 NASA Group 1
Missions Apollo–Soyuz Test Project
Mission insignia
ASTP patch.png
Retirement February 27, 1982
Awards Dfc-usa.jpg
Collier Trophy
James H. Doolittle Award

Donald Kent Slayton (March 1, 1924 – June 13, 1993), (Major, USAF), better known as Deke Slayton, was an American World War II pilot, aeronautical engineer, test pilot who was selected as one of the original NASA Mercury Seven astronauts, and became NASA's first Chief of the Astronaut Office.[1]

After joining NASA, Slayton was selected to pilot the second U.S. manned orbital spaceflight, but was grounded in 1962 by atrial fibrillation, an irregular heart rhythm. He then served as NASA's Director of Flight Crew Operations, making him responsible for crew assignments at NASA from November 1963 until March 1972. At that time he was granted medical clearance to fly, and was assigned as the docking module pilot of the 1975 Apollo–Soyuz Test Project, at age 51 becoming the oldest person to fly in space at the time. This record was surpassed in 1983 by 53-year-old John Young and in 1998 by Slayton's fellow Project Mercury astronaut John Glenn, who at the age of 77 flew on Space Shuttle mission STS-95.

Slayton died at the age of 69 on June 13, 1993, from a malignant brain tumor.


Early life, education and military service[edit]

Deke Slayton as a bomber pilot during World War II

Slayton was born on March 1, 1924, on a farm near Sparta, Wisconsin, to parents Charles Sherman Slayton (1887–1972) and Victoria Adelia Slayton (née Larson; 1895–1970).[2] He was of English and Norwegian descent. In 1929, a childhood farm equipment accident left him with a severed left ring finger. He attended elementary school in Leon, Wisconsin, and graduated from Sparta High School in 1942.

He entered the United States Army Air Forces as a cadet in 1942, training as a B-25 bomber pilot and received his wings in April 1943 after completing flight training at Vernon and Waco, Texas. He flew 56 combat missions with the 340th Bombardment Group over Europe during World War II and later flew seven combat missions over Japan in a Douglas A-26 Invader as part of the 319th Bombardment Group. In the meantime, he returned to the United States in mid-1944 as a B-25 instructor pilot at Columbia, South Carolina, and later served with a unit responsible for checking pilot proficiency on the A-26 light bomber.[3]

After the war, Slayton graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the University of Minnesota, in 1949. Following graduation, he worked for two years as an engineer with the Boeing Aircraft Corporation at Seattle, Washington before being recalled to active duty in 1951 with the Minnesota Air National Guard.

Upon reporting for duty, Slayton was a maintenance flight test officer of an F-51 squadron located in Minneapolis, then served eighteen months as a technical inspector at Headquarters Twelfth Air Force, and a tour as fighter pilot and maintenance officer with the 36th Fighter Day Wing at Bitburg Air Base, West Germany.[4] He graduated from the Air Command and Staff College in 1952.

Returning to the United States in June 1955, Slayton attended and graduated from U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School to became a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in California. He tested supersonic Air Force fighters, including the F-101, F-102, F-105, and F-106,[5] and was responsible for determining stall-spin characteristics for the large F-105, which became the principal fighter bomber used by the Air Force over North Vietnam.[6]

In his Air Force career, he logged 7,164 hours flying time including more than 5,100 hours in jet aircraft.

NASA career[edit]

Mercury Seven[edit]

Deke Slayton (sitting front row, left) with fellow Mercury astronauts

In 1959, Slayton was one of 110 military test pilots selected by their commanding officers as candidates for the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Project Mercury, the first U.S. manned space flight program. Following a gruelling series of physical and psychological tests, NASA selected Slayton to be one of the original group of seven Mercury astronauts.

He was scheduled to fly in 1962 on the second orbital flight Mercury-Atlas 7, which he would have named Delta 7 (after the fourth letter in the Greek alphabet since this was the fourth manned Mercury flight, and "7" designating the seven astronauts), but because of an erratic heart rate (idiopathic atrial fibrillation), he was grounded in September 1962.[7] MA-7 was flown by his backup, Scott Carpenter, who named the flight Aurora 7. Slayton was the only member of the Mercury Seven who did not fly in the Mercury program.

Gemini and Apollo crew selection[edit]

"You're it."

Slayton, informing the crew of Apollo 11.[8]

When NASA grounded Slayton, the Air Force followed suit. From September 1, 1962 until November 1963, he obtained the unofficial title of "chief astronaut" when he took on the position of Coordinator of Astronaut Activities, which would later officially become Chief of the Astronaut Office. Slayton resigned his Air Force commission in 1963 and then worked for NASA in a civilian capacity as head of astronaut selection. He had the decisive role in choosing the crews for the Gemini and Apollo programs, including the decision of who would be the first person on the Moon.

In 1972, Slayton was awarded the Society of Experimental Test Pilots James H. Doolittle Award.

Restored to full flight status[edit]

While grounded, Slayton took several measures to attempt to be restored to flight status, including a daily exercise program, quitting cigarette smoking and coffee, and drastically reducing consumption of alcoholic beverages. He also took massive doses of vitamins, and for a time took daily doses of quinidine, a crystalline alkaloid.

In July 1970 the fibrillation ceased, and a comprehensive review of his medical status by NASA's director of life sciences and the Federal Aviation Agency resulted in the full restoration of his flight status in March 1972. Slayton celebrated with an hour of aerobatic maneuvers in a NASA T-38 jet trainer.[9]

Apollo–Soyuz flight[edit]

Deke Slayton (right) with cosmonaut Alexey Leonov in the Soyuz spacecraft

After he was restored to flight status, Slayton was selected in February 1973 as docking module pilot for the Apollo–Soyuz Test Project, a docking between an American Apollo spacecraft and a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft. The American crew immediately began an intensive two-year training program, which included learning the Russian language and making frequent trips to the USSR, where astronauts trained for weeks at Star City, the cosmonaut training center near Moscow. Slayton resigned as Director of Flight Crew Operations in February 1974.[10]

On July 17, 1975, the two craft joined up in orbit, and astronauts Slayton, Thomas P. Stafford and Vance D. Brand conducted crew transfers with cosmonauts Alexey Leonov and Valeri Kubasov. At the end of the flight, an erroneous switch setting led to the introduction of noxious fumes into the Apollo cabin during landing, and the crew was hospitalized as a precaution in Honolulu, Hawaii, for two weeks. During hospitalization, a lesion was discovered on Slayton's lung and removed. It was determined to be benign.

During his first and only spaceflight, he spent 217 hours in space.

Space Shuttle program[edit]

Main article: Space Shuttle

After the Apollo–Soyuz flight, he became head of the Approach and Landing Tests (ALT) of NASA's Space Shuttle.

Following the ALT program, Slayton served as Manager for Orbital Flight Test, directing orbital flight mission preparations and conducting mission operations. He was responsible for OFT operations scheduling, mission configuration control, preflight stack configuration control, as well as conducting planning reviews, mission readiness reviews, and postflight mission evaluations. He was also responsible for the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft program.

Later years[edit]

Slayton retired from NASA in 1982. After retirement, he served as President of Space Services Inc., a Houston-based company earlier founded to develop rockets for small commercial payloads. He served as mission director for a rocket called the Conestoga, which was successfully launched on September 9, 1982, and was the world's first privately funded rocket to reach space.[11] Slayton also became interested in aviation racing. In addition to serving as a consultant to some aerospace corporations, he was President of International Formula One Pylon Air Racing and Director of Columbia Astronautics. He also served on the Department of Transportation's Commercial Space Advisory Committee.[12]

Slayton penned an autobiography with space historian Michael Cassutt entitled Deke!: U.S. Manned Space from Mercury to the Shuttle.[13] As well as Slayton's own astronaut experiences, the book describes how Slayton made crew choice selections, including choosing the first person to walk on the Moon. Numerous astronauts have noted that only when reading this book did they learn why they had been selected for certain flights decades earlier.

Slayton's name also appears with three other co-authors, including fellow astronaut Alan Shepard, on the book Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America's Race to the Moon, published in 1994.[14] The book was also made into a documentary film of the same name. Slayton died before either Moon Shot project was finished or released, and the book did not receive any input from him. However, the film was narrated from Slayton's point of view (voiced by Barry Corbin) and includes a brief tribute to him at the very end.

Personal life[edit]

Slayton was a friend of fellow astronaut Gus Grissom.[15] He married Marjorie "Marge" Lunney (1921–1989) in May 1955, and they had one son, Kent Sherman, born April 8, 1957.[16] They eventually divorced, and Slayton later married Bobbie Belle Jones (1945–2010) in 1983. They remained married until his death.[17] His hobbies were hunting, fishing, shooting, and airplane racing.[18]

Shortly after he moved to League City, Texas, in 1992, Slayton was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. He died from the illness, at the age of 69, on June 13, 1993.[19]


Slayton was a member of numerous organizations. He was a fellow of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots and the American Astronautical Society; associate fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics; member of the Experimental Aircraft Association, the Space Pioneers, and the Confederate Air Force; life member of the Order of Daedalians, the National Rifle Association of America, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Fraternal Order of Eagles; honorary member of the American Fighter Aces Association, the National WWII Glider Pilots Association and the Association of Space Explorers.[20]

Awards and honors[edit]

Military and NASA decorations and medals:

Gold star
Gold star
Bronze star
Distinguished Flying Cross Air Medal
NASA Distinguished Service Medal
with two stars
NASA Exceptional Service Medal NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal
NASA Space Flight Medal American Campaign Medal European-African-Middle
Eastern Campaign Medal
Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal World War II Victory Medal National Defense Service Medal
with one star

Slayton's other awards include:

The Collier Trophy; the SETP Iven C. Kincheloe Award; the Gen. Billy Mitchell Award; the John J. Montgomery Award (1963); the SETP James H. Doolittle Award (1972); the National Institute of Social Sciences Gold Medal (1975); the Zeta Beta Tau’s Richard Gottheil Medal (1975); the Wright Brothers International Manned Space Flight Award (1975); the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Space Award (1976); the American Heart Association’s Heart of the Year Award (1976); the FAI Yuri Gagarin Gold Medal (1976); 3the District 35-R Lions International American of the Year Award (1976); the AIAA Special Presidential Citation (1977); the University of Minnesota’s Outstanding Achievement Award (1977); the Houston Area Federal Business Association’s Civil Servant of the Year Award (1977); the AAS Flight Achievement Award for 1976 (1977); the AIAA Haley Astronautics Award for 1978; Honorary D.Sc. from Carthage College, Carthage, Illinois, in 1961; Honorary Doctorate in Engineering from Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Michigan, in 1965.


With the other Mercury astronauts, Slayton was awarded the Collier Trophy in 1962 "for pioneering manned space flight in the United States".[21]

Deke Slayton was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame on May 11, 1990.[22]

Slayton was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame in 1990.[23]

Slayton was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1996.[24]

The Texas Oncology-Deke Slayton Cancer Center (located on Medical Center Blvd. in Webster, Texas) was named in his honor in 2000.[25]

The main stretch of road in League City, Texas, FM 518, was renamed Deke Slayton Highway.[26]

The Deke Slayton Memorial Space & Bicycle Museum in Sparta, Wisconsin, was named in his honor.[27] The Slayton biographical exhibit includes his Mercury space suit, his Ambassador of Exploration Award, which showcases a lunar sample, and more. In nearby La Crosse, Wisconsin, an annual summer aircraft air show, the Deke Slayton Airfest, has been held in his honor, featuring modern and vintage military and civilian aircraft, along with NASA speakers.

The Cygnus CRS Orb-4 Orbital ATK space vehicle, launched to the International Space Station on December 6, 2015, was named S.S. Deke Slayton II in his honor.[28]

In media[edit]

Books authored[edit]

Physical description[edit]

  • Weight: 165 lb (75 kg)
  • Height: 5 ft 11 in (1.80 m)
  • Hair: Gray
  • Eyes: Blue[35]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Astronaut Bio: Deke Slayton 6/93". NASA. June 1993. Retrieved August 8, 2013. 
  2. ^ Slayton's NASA long biography
  3. ^ Slayton's military career
  4. ^ Donald K. Slayton at the New Mexico Museum of Space History
  5. ^ "Donald K "Deke" Slayton". Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame. Retrieved August 8, 2013. While at Edwards, Deke Slayton flew test flight missions on the F-101, F-102, F-105 and the F-106. 
  6. ^ Kranz 2000
  7. ^ "Donald K. Slayton". International Space Hall of Fame. New Mexico Museum of Space History. Retrieved April 17, 2012. 
  8. ^ Donald K. Slayton at New Mexico Museum of Space History
  9. ^ Slayton's NASA long biography
  10. ^ Slayton's NASA long biography
  11. ^ Abell, John C. (September 9, 2009). "September 9, 1982: 3-2-1 … Liftoff! The First Private Rocket Launch". Condé Nast. Retrieved August 8, 2013. 
  12. ^ Deke Slayton post-NASA career
  13. ^ Slayton & Cassutt 1994
  14. ^ Shepard & Slayton 1994
  15. ^ Slayton & Cassutt 1995, p. 185
  16. ^ Burgess 2011, p. 345
  17. ^ Burgess 2011, p. 350
  18. ^ Slayton's hobbies
  19. ^ "Today in history". The New York Times. Associated Press. June 13, 2014. Retrieved June 13, 2014. 
  20. ^ Deke's memberships
  21. ^ Warren-Findley, Jannelle (1998). "The Collier as Commemoration: The Project Mercury Astronauts and the Collier Trophy". In Mack, Pamela E. From Engineering Science to Big Science: The NACA and NASA Collier Trophy Research Project Winners. The NASA History Series. Washington, D.C.: NASA History Office, Office of Policy and Plans. p. 165. ISBN 0-16-049640-3. LCCN 97027899. OCLC 37451762. NASA SP-4219. Retrieved January 10, 2011. 
  22. ^ Deke Slayton inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame
  23. ^ Deke Slayton inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame Hall of Fame
  24. ^ "National Aviation Hall of fame: Our Enshrinees". National Aviation Hall of Fame. Retrieved February 10, 2011. 
  25. ^ "Texas Oncology-Deke Slayton Cancer Center". Retrieved February 10, 2011. 
  26. ^ "Bobbie Slayton dead at 65". Bay Area Citizen (Houston, TX: Houston Community Newspapers). November 29, 2010. Retrieved February 10, 2011. 
  27. ^ "Deke Slayton Memorial Space & Bicycle Museum". Retrieved February 10, 2011. 
  28. ^ Jeff Foust (6 December 2015). "Atlas Launches Cygnus Cargo Spacecraft to Space Station". SpaceNews. 
  29. ^ The Right Stuff at the Internet Movie Database
  30. ^ Apollo 13 at the Internet Movie Database
  31. ^ Apollo 11 at the Internet Movie Database
  32. ^ From The Earth to the Moon at the Internet Movie Database
  33. ^ Moonshot at the Internet Movie Database
  34. ^ The Astronaut Wives Club at the Internet Movie Database
  35. ^ Deke Slayton's physical description


External links[edit]