Donald “Deke” Slayton
Described by Life Magazine as “frank and stubborn,” Slayton once joked that people were always trying to stop him from exploring. Indeed, the Air Force almost rejected him when they discovered that his left ring finger, which had been severed in a childhood farming accident was missing. A review of Air Force regulations concluded that “Deke” had lost the only finger he could lose and still be eligible for flight training! In 1962, NASA clipped his wings for 13 years due to an irregular heartbeat. Slayton’s stubborn streak won out as he clung to, and eventually achieved, his dream of space flight!
- World War II Air Force Bomber Pilot & Test Pilot.
- Director, Flight Crew Operations – NASA.
- Docking Module Pilot, Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, July 15-21st, 1975.
- Head of Shuttle Approach & Landing Test Program.
Donald Kent “Deke” Slayton was born on March 1st, 1924 on a farm in Sparta, Wisconsin. As a child, “Deke” was always exploring until his mother tied him to a clothesline to limit how far he went. It was in high school that his love of flying blossomed. He was so well known for this that in the yearbook, his motto was: “Keep ‘em flying!”
In 1942, Slayton entered the Army Air Corps as an aviation cadet. He received his pilot’s wings in April 1943 after completing flight training at Vernon and Waco, Texas. Slayton went on to B-25 training in Columbia, South Carolina for three months before joining the 340th Bombardment group. He flew 56 combat missions in Europe as a B-25 pilot from October 1943 to May 1944. He then returned to the U.S., hoping to return to the fighting in a fighter.
In May 1945, Slayton went to Okinawa with the 319th Bombardment Group and flew seven combat missions over Japan in A-26s. He returned stateside in October of 1945. He left the Air Force to enter the University of Minnesota in November of 1946. In 1949, he graduated from the University of Minnesota with a B.S. in Aeronautical Engineering and worked two years with the Boeing Aircraft Corporation at Seattle, Washington.
While on recall assignment with the HQ 12th Air Force in Wiesbaden, Germany, Deke met and married Marjorie Lunney in 1955, a month before he was scheduled to leave. Deke then attended the USAF Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California, from which he graduated in December of 1955. His next assignment was to test fighters at the Flight Test Center. There were two different gentlemen with the name “Don” in the group, which often confused the staff. To alleviate this confusion, Slayton became “DK” and then eventually “Deke.” His son, Kent Sherman was born at Edwards in 1957.
In January of 1959, NASA offered Slayton a position with the Mercury Astronaut mission. Along with John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Wally Schirra, Gus Grissom, Alan Shepard, Gordon and Cooper, Slayton underwent extensive testing and training in preparation for the United States’ first manned space program. This involved everything from desert survival to weightlessness training. Four months after the program started, doctors diagnosed Slayton with a heart anomaly, a flutter in his heartbeat. But not until May 1962 was Slayton told that he was grounded from flying in the Mercury program. NASA needed a senior manager to run the astronaut office, which was to be expanded for the Gemini and Apollo programs. As a result, Slayton became coordinator of astronaut activities.
In 1963, Slayton took on the additional job of handling everything associated with flight crews when NASA appointed him Assistant Director of Flight Crew Operations. Deke was heavily involved in the planning of all the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, personally selecting the crews of each mission. He was responsible for directing the activities of the Astronaut Office, the Aircraft Operations Office, the Flight Crew Integration Division, the Crew Training and Simulation Division and the Crew Procedures Division. He played a major role in bringing the Apollo 13 crew home safely after an accident in space jeopardized their lives. Even though he had an administrative job and was restricted to flying with a co-pilot, Deke continued astronaut training, still hoping his day would come.
In December of 1971, NASA doctors determined that Slayton no longer had any sign of a coronary disorder and NASA restored him to full flight status on March 13th, 1972. The opportunity for which Slayton had so patiently waited finally came with the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP), a joint space flight that culminated in the first historical meeting in space between American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts. The American crew for the ASTP was announced on January 30th, 1973. Slayton, along with Tom Stafford and Vance Brand, were picked as the primary crew for the U.S. on this project. Stafford was assigned as commander, while Slayton’s assignment was in the Docking Module pilot. In the Soviet spacecraft were cosmonauts Alexey Leonov and Valery Kubasov. The crewmen of both nations participated in a rendezvous and subsequent docking, with Apollo the active spacecraft. Both Apollo and Soyuz launched into space on July 15th, 1975. The event marked the successful testing of a universal docking system and signaled a major advance in efforts to pave the way for joint experiments and the exchange of mutual assistance in future international space explorations. There were 44 hours of docked joint activities during ASTP, highlighted by four crew transfers and the completion of joint scientific experiments and engineering investigations. All major ASTP objectives were accomplished including testing a compatible rendezvous system in orbit. Slayton logged 217 hours and 28 minutes in his first space flight. He was the oldest astronaut and last of the Mercury Seven to fly into space.
After a short rest and publicity tour, Slayton was back to run the shuttle Approach and Landing Test (ALT) program for the Space Shuttle program’s orbital test flights in 1975. The goal of the program was to prove that unpowered landings of the shuttle orbiter were possible while also testing the basic aerodynamics of the vehicle itself . As manager of the Space Shuttle Approach and Landing Test from December 1975 through November 1977, Slayton directed the Space Shuttle through a series of critical Orbiter flight tests that allowed in-flight test and checkout of flight controls and Orbiter subsystems and permitted extensive evaluations of the Orbiter’s subsonic flying qualities and performance characteristics. These tests also verified the capability to ferry the Shuttle aboard a 747. From November 1977, until his retirement March 1982, Slayton served as Manager for Approach and Landing Test for the Space Shuttle program. He directed orbital flight mission preparations and missions operations. Later, Slayton became the manager of the Orbital Flight Program at the same time that he and Marge decided to separate.
The first launch of the Space Shuttle Orbiter 102 Columbia occurred in April 1981. The second launch, in November of the same year, was Deke’s last mission as a NASA employee. His retirement was official on February 27th, 1982. He had logged 7,164 hours of flying time. But Slayton didn’t stop flying. He bought a Williams 17, an all-metal, Formula One plane nicknamed the Stinger. Slayton entered Formula One racing. He finished second in his first race with an average speed of 201.45 miles per hour. Over the next eight years, Slayton raced forty-three times in eighteen different meets. At the same time, Slayton had joined Space Services, Incorporated as a consultant eventually becoming president. In 1982, he helped design and build a rocket called the “Conestoga”, serving as program manager and range safety officer when it successfully launched on September 9th, 1982. In October of 1983, Deke married Bobbie Osborn, a former LTV/Rockwell employee and they moved to League City, Texas. In 1991, Slayton began experiencing health problems and in 1992 doctors discovered that he had a malignant brain tumor. On June 13th, 1993, at the age of 69, Deke finally succumbed to the cancer.
As one of the true pioneers of the American space program, whose expertise, knowledge and leadership helped make America the world leader in the race to the conquest of space and beyond, Donald K. “Deke” Slayton well deserves his place of honor in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
For more information on Donald “Deke” Slayton, you may want to visit the following websites: