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Donald Kent "Deke" Slayton (March 1, 1924 – June 13, 1993), (Major, USAF) was an American World War II pilot, aeronautical engineer, and 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]

Deke Slayton
Deke Slayton signature.svg
NASA Astronaut
NationalityUnited States
BornDonald Kent Slayton
(1924-03-01)March 1, 1924
Sparta, Wisconsin, U.S.
DiedJune 13, 1993(1993-06-13) (aged 69)
League City, Texas, U.S.
Previous occupation
Bomber pilot, test pilot
University of Minnesota, B.S. 1949
RankUS-O4 insignia.svg Major, USAF
Time in space
9d 01h 28m
Selection1959 NASA Group 1
MissionsApollo–Soyuz Test Project
Mission insignia
ASTP patch.png
RetirementFebruary 27, 1982
AwardsDfc-usa.jpg NASA Distinguished Service Medal.jpg
Collier Trophy
James H. Doolittle Award

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 54-year-old William E. Thornton, 59-year-old (and fellow ASTP crew member) Vance Brand in 1990, 61-year-old Story Musgrave in 1996, 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 and educationEdit

Deke Slayton as a bomber pilot during World War II
Deke Slayton (right) beside a Douglas A-26 bomber

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 (Class 43E) 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.[2] Slayton served again as a B-25 instructor for one year following the end of the war.[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.[1]

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 in Wiesbaden Army Airfield, West Germany, and a tour as fighter pilot and maintenance officer with the 36th Fighter Day Wing at Bitburg Air Base, West Germany.[3] He graduated from the Squadron Officer School at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama in 1952, at that time an arm of Air Command and Staff College.

Test pilotEdit

Returning to the United States in June 1955, Slayton attended and graduated from U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School (Class 55C) to become 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,[4] 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.[5] In 1958 he was one of two USAF test pilots given the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the English Electric P1B Lightning in England. Slayton subsequently commented:

The P.1 was a terrific plane, with the easy handling of the F-86 and the performance of an F-104. Its only drawback was that it had no range at all. . . Looking back, however, I'd have to say that the P.1 was my favourite all-time plane.[6]


In his Air Force career, he logged 6,600 hours flying time including more than 5,100 hours in jet aircraft.[1]

NASA careerEdit

Mercury SevenEdit

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 series of physical and psychological tests, NASA selected Slayton to be one of the original group of seven Mercury astronauts.[2]

Slayton was scheduled to fly in May 1962 on the program's second orbital flight (Mercury-Atlas 7), which he would have named Delta 7. However, during the summer of 1961, Slayton was diagnosed with an erratic heart rate (idiopathic atrial fibrillation).[7] NASA doctors did not see the condition as disqualifying, but he was grounded by other officials because they were unsure how his heart would perform under weightlessness.[8]

The flight was given to Scott Carpenter instead and Slayton was grounded from flights completely the following September.[3] He ended up as the only one of the Mercury Seven to not fly a Mercury mission.

After his diagnosis, he started exercising and making lifestyle changes, including quitting smoking, coffee and cocktails in an effort discover the cause. Flight doctors recommended a cardiac catheterization to rule out a congenital condition, but NASA considered it too risky, given that he was already grounded. In a 1972 interview, Slayton said; "It was a political, not a medical decision".[8]

Gemini and Apollo crew selectionEdit

You're it.

—Slayton, informing the crew of Apollo 11.[9]

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 was assigned as Coordinator of Astronaut Activities, a position later re-designated as Chief of the Astronaut Office. Despite forfeiting a pension that he would have earned following twenty combined years of active duty, Air Guard and Reserve service in 1964, Slayton resigned his Air Force commission in 1963 and continued to work for NASA as a civilian executive, first as Assistant Director of Flight Crew Operations until 1966, and then as Director of Flight Crew Operations.[10] As Director, he oversaw the activities of the astronaut office (managed by Chief of the Astronaut Office Alan Shepard, also grounded due to Ménière's disease), the aircraft operations office, the flight crew integration division, the crew training and simulation division, and the crew procedures division. 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.[1]

Restored to full flight statusEdit

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.

In 1970 his palpitations became more frequent and he started taking experimental daily doses of quinidine, a crystalline alkaloid. This treatment was successful, but concerned that taking medication would still disqualify him from solo flying, Slayton stopped taking it against doctors orders. The fibrillation did not return.[8]

A comprehensive review of his medical status by NASA's director of life sciences and the Federal Aviation Agency, including a heart catheterization,[8] 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.[2]

Apollo–Soyuz flightEdit

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 (ASTP), 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.[2]

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 noxious nitrogen tetroxide fumes from the command module's RCS thrusters being sucked into the 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, but he would have almost certainly been grounded from ASTP if this had been discovered before the flight.

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

Space Shuttle programEdit

Deke Slayton flying T-38 (far left) during Orbital Flight Test, March 1979

After the Apollo–Soyuz flight, he became head of the Approach and Landing Tests (ALT) of NASA's Space Shuttle.[2]

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.[2]

Although Slayton expressed his hope of flying on a Shuttle mission, new NASA management did not favor him, making it clear that they considered him part of the past and that they planned to recruit a new young group of astronauts for the Shuttle era.

Later yearsEdit

Slayton retired from NASA in 1980, but retained unofficial ties as a consultant until 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.[2]

Slayton penned an autobiography with space historian Michael Cassutt entitled Deke!: U.S. Manned Space from Mercury to the Shuttle.[12] As well as Slayton's own astronaut experiences, the book describes how he 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.[13] 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 end.

Personal lifeEdit

Slayton married Marjorie "Marge" Lunney (1921–1989) in May 1955, and they had one son, Kent Sherman, born April 8, 1957.[14]:345 They eventually divorced, and Slayton later married Bobbie Belle Jones (1945–2010) in 1983. They remained married until his death.[14]:350 His hobbies were hunting, fishing, shooting, and airplane racing.[15]

Slayton was a close friend of fellow astronaut Gus Grissom.[16]

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.[17] He was cremated and his ashes scattered over his family farm in Wisconsin.


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.[18]

Awards and honorsEdit

Deke Slayton

Military and NASA decorations and medals:

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.


Keep ’em flying!

—Slayton's high school yearbook motto.[19]

With the other Mercury astronauts, Slayton was awarded the Collier Trophy in 1962 "for pioneering manned space flight in the United States".[20]

Deke Slayton was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame on May 11, 1990.[21]

Slayton was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame in 1990.[3]

Slayton was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1996.[22]

In 2001, Slayton was inducted into the International Air & Space Hall of Fame at the San Diego Air & Space Museum.[23]

The Texas Oncology-Deke Slayton Cancer Center (located on Medical Center Blvd. in Webster, Texas) was named in his honor in 2000.[24]

The main stretch of road in League City, Texas, FM 518, was renamed Deke Slayton Highway.[25]

The Deke Slayton Memorial Space & Bicycle Museum in Sparta, Wisconsin, was named in his honor.[26] 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.[27]

In mediaEdit

Books authoredEdit

  • Slayton, Donald K.; Cassutt, Michael (1994). Deke!: U.S. Manned Space: From Mercury to the Shuttle (1st ed.). New York: Forge. ISBN 0-312-85503-6. LCCN 94002463. OCLC 29845663.
  • ——; Cassutt, Michael (1995) [Originally copyrighted 1994]. Deke!. New York: Forge. ISBN 0-312-85918-X. LCCN 94002463. OCLC 42051303.
  • ——; Shepard, Alan B.; Barbree, Jay; Benedict, Howard (1994). Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America’s Race to the Moon. Introduction by Neil Armstrong (1st ed.). Atlanta: Turner Publishing Company. ISBN 1-878685-54-6. LCCN 94003027. OCLC 29846731. Author in name only.
  • ——; Carpenter, M. Scott; Cooper, L. Gordon, Jr.; Glenn, John H., Jr.; Grissom, Virgil I.; Schirra, Walter M., Jr.; Shepard, Alan B., Jr. (2010) [Originally published 1962]. We Seven: By the Astronauts Themselves. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. ISBN 978-1-4391-8103-4. LCCN 62019074. OCLC 429024791.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ a b c d "Astronaut Bio: Deke Slayton 6/93". NASA. June 1993. Retrieved August 8, 2013.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Gray, Tara. "Donald K. "Deke" Slayton". NASA History Program Office. Retrieved October 6, 2016.
  3. ^ a b c d "Flew on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project mission". New Mexico Museum of Space History. Retrieved October 6, 2016.
  4. ^ "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.
  5. ^ Kranz, Gene (2000). Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control from Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond. New York: Simon & Schuster. ISBN 0-7432-0079-9. LCCN 00027720. OCLC 43590801. ...[H]e was one of the hot test pilots at Edwards Air Force Base, pushing the F-105 to its limits.
  6. ^ Slayton D.K. with Cassutt M. (1995). Deke! U.S. Manned Space: From Mercury to the Shuttle. Forge Books. ISBN 978-0-3128-5918-3.
  7. ^ "Deke Slayton at Orbital ATK" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2015-11-25. Retrieved 2017-11-30.
  8. ^ a b c d LAWRENCE K. ALTMAN (27 April 1972). "Deke Slayton Studies Russian and Dreams of Space". New York Times. Retrieved 14 June 2018.
  9. ^ Donald K. Slayton at New Mexico Museum of Space History
  10. ^
  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. ^ Slayton & Cassutt 1994
  13. ^ Shepard & Slayton 1994
  14. ^ a b Burgess, Colin (2011). Selecting the Mercury Seven: The Search for America's First Astronauts. New York: Springer. doi:10.1007/978-1-4419-8405-0. ISBN 978-1-4419-8404-3. LCCN 2011925650. OCLC 747105631.
  15. ^ Slayton's hobbies
  16. ^ Slayton & Cassutt 1995, p. 185
  17. ^ "Today in history". The New York Times. Associated Press. June 13, 2014. Retrieved June 13, 2014.
  18. ^ Association of Space Explorers. Members: United States.
  19. ^ Donald K. Slayton at National Aviation Hall of Fame
  20. ^ 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.
  21. ^ Deke Slayton inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame
  22. ^ "National Aviation Hall of fame: Our Enshrinees". National Aviation Hall of Fame. Retrieved February 10, 2011.
  23. ^ Sprekelmeyer, Linda, editor. These We Honor: The International Aerospace Hall of Fame. Donning Co. Publishers, 2006. ISBN 978-1-57864-397-4.
  24. ^ "Texas Oncology-Deke Slayton Cancer Center". Retrieved February 10, 2011.
  25. ^ "Bobbie Slayton dead at 65". Bay Area Citizen. Houston, TX: Houston Community Newspapers. November 29, 2010. Retrieved February 10, 2011.
  26. ^ "Deke Slayton Memorial Space & Bicycle Museum". Retrieved February 10, 2011.
  27. ^ Jeff Foust (6 December 2015). "Atlas Launches Cygnus Cargo Spacecraft to Space Station". SpaceNews.
  28. ^ The Right Stuff on IMDb
  29. ^ Apollo 13 on IMDb
  30. ^ Apollo 11 on IMDb
  31. ^ From The Earth to the Moon on IMDb
  32. ^ Moonshot on IMDb
  33. ^ The Astronaut Wives Club on IMDb
  34. ^ Hidden Figures on IMDb
  35. ^ First Man on IMDb

External linksEdit