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Donald K. "Deke" Slayton
by Tara Gray

Photo of Slayton

Donald K. "Deke" Slayton (Major, USAF, Ret.) was born on March 1, 1924, in Sparta, Wisconsin, to parents Charles Sherman and Victoria Adelia (Larson) Slayton.1 Slayton graduated from Sparta High School, Sparta, Wisconsin, in 1942, and then enlisted in the Army Air Corps as an aviation cadet on his 18th birthday, March 1, 1942.2 He completed flight training at Vernon and Waco, Texas, and received his wings and commission in April 1943. He was sent to Europe where he flew 56 combat missions in B-25 medium bombers with the 340th Bombardment Group. 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. In April 1945, he was sent to Okinawa with the 319th Bombardment Group and flew seven combat missions in A-26s in the Ryukyus Islands before Japan surrendered.3

Slayton served as a B-25 instructor pilot for a year following the end of World War II, and in 1946 he was discharged from the Air Force as a captain. He entered the University of Minnesota where he doubled up on courses and graduated in two years with a bachelor's degree in aeronautical engineering in 1949.4 The Boeing Aircraft Company hired him as an engineer, and he worked in Seattle, Washington, for two years on electrical systems and wing designs. Then in 1951, he was recalled to active duty by the Minnesota Air National Guard. Upon reporting for duty, he was assigned as the maintenance flight test officer of an F-51 squadron in Minneapolis, then spent 18 months as a technical inspector at Headquarters 12th Air Force. He was also assigned as a fighter pilot and maintenance officer with the 36th Fighter Day Wing at the U.S. Air Force Base at Bitburg, West Germany.5 Slayton met his wife, the former Marjorie Lunney of Los Angeles, California, while he was in Germany. She was working for the Air Force there and the two were married on May 15, 1955.6

Returning to the United States in June 1955, Slayton attended the U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California. He was a test pilot there from January 1956 until April 1959, and participated in the testing of aircraft built for the Air Force, as well as some foreign fighter planes.7 His last assignment in the Air Force was Chief of Fighter Test Section A.8 Slayton had been assigned to Edwards for four years when Project Mercury came into being and during this time the Air Force had recently started a new regulation limiting personnel to five years in any one assignment. Slayton began to realize that Mercury was his next logical step since his time at Edwards was nearing an end.9 Very shortly after he first heard about Project Mercury, the newly created National Aeronautics and Space Administration invited him, along with over 100 other top military test pilots, to Washington, D.C., to participate in some briefings to find out what Project Mercury was all about. When NASA inquired at the end of the briefings whether or not he was interested he replied that he was and would like to hear more. He qualified to stay on for further interviews and he earned a place among the group of 32 men who took the final tests. The candidates were subjected to numerous tests to determine their physical and psychological well-being as well as their stamina and endurance. Once he completed the testing, Slayton returned to Edwards to find three weeks worth of paperwork on his desk and spent most of his time flying back and forth from one air base to another, trying to catch up on his regular work. He was so busy after he returned from the NASA testing that he had very little time to think about the possibility of becoming an astronaut. Then Charles Donlan, associate director of Project Mercury, called him one morning to inform him that if he was still interested he had been selected to join the Space Task Group at Langley, Virginia, as a Mercury astronaut.10

On April 9, 1959, Slayton joined fellow Mercury astronauts, Alan B. Shepard, Jr., Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, John H. Glenn, Jr., M. Scott Carpenter, Walter M. Schirra, Jr., and L. Gordon Cooper, Jr., for a press conference in Washington, D.C., to announce to the press and the world that the United States had officially joined the "space race." Following the press conference, the astronauts returned to Langley to begin their intensive training. This included a "little of everything" ranging from a graduate-level course in introductory space science to simulator training and scuba-diving. Training continued until the Langley Space Task Force was transferred to the newly established Manned Spacecraft Center (MSC) in Houston, Texas.11 When each of the Mercury astronauts were assigned a different portion of the project and special assignments, to ensure pilot input, Slayton's primary assignment was to gain thorough familiarity with the Atlas missile that was to hurl the Mercury capsule into earth orbit. He was intended to be the first American astronaut to orbit the earth, after a planned third suborbital flight by Glenn. But, following the flights of Shepard and Grissom, Glenn's suborbital flight was canceled. He was reassigned to the first orbital Mercury flight and Slayton, on November 29, 1961, was named as the pilot of Mercury Atlas-7 (MA-7), the second orbital mission.12

On March 15, 1962, NASA announced that a heart condition called idiopathic atrial fibrillation (an erratic heart rate) that was first detected in November 1959, would prevent Slayton from making the flight. Carpenter was, at that time, named as the MA-7 replacement with Schirra as his backup pilot.13 The MA-7 mission was successfully completed on May 24, 1962.14 On July 11, 1962, Slayton assumed new operational, engineering and planning responsibilities within NASA's Manned Space Flight Research Programs, including Projects Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo. He continued to participate in the astronaut training program and his physical condition was monitored on a continuous basis by members of the MSC medical staff.15 In September 1962, Slayton was assigned as Coordinator of Astronaut Activities with responsibility for directing the newly formed Astronaut Office. In November 1963, he resigned his commission as an Air Force major and continued and continued with NASA as a civilian astronaut. For three years Slayton served as assistant director of flight crew operations, a new office with responsibility for directing the Astronaut Office, Aircraft Operations Office and Flight Crew Support Division. Beginning in 1966, he served as director of flight crew operations. As director of flight crew operations, he played a key role in choosing the crew of every manned space mission, including the Apollo teams.16

Meanwhile, Slayton was doing everything possible to return to flight status. He followed a daily exercise program, quit smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee, reduced his intake of alcohol drastically, took massive doses of vitamins, and for a time took daily doses of quinidine, a crystalline alkaloid. In July 1970, the fibrillation ceased, and he was restored to full flight status in March 1972, following a comprehensive review of his medical status by NASA's director of life sciences and the Federal Aviation Agency. Instead of breaking out the champagne, Slayton checked out a T-38 jet trainer at Ellington Air Force Base, Texas, and celebrated with an hour's worth of aerobatic maneuvers, flying solo.17

On February 9, 1973, Slayton was assigned to the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) along with Thomas P. Stafford and Vance D. Brand. The astronauts immediately began an intensive two-year training program that included learning the Russian language and making frequent trips to the Soviet Union, where they trained for weeks at Star City, the cosmonaut training center near Moscow. Slayton resigned as director of flight crew operations in February 1974.18

Slayton's first and only spaceflight began on July 15, 1975, when he was launched as the first Apollo Docking Module Pilot for ASTP. The flight culminated in the first meeting in space between American astronauts and Soviet Cosmonauts, when two days later Apollo and Soyuz 19 rendezvoused and docked over Europe. During the 44 hours the two ships remained linked, Slayton, Stafford and Brand conducted crew transfers with cosmonauts Aleksey A. Leonov and Valeriy Kubasov. The crews also completed a number of joint scientific experiments and engineering investigations. The major objectives of the mission were accomplished, most notably the testing of a compatible rendezvous system and androgynous docking assemblies in orbit. Apollo returned to Earth on July 24, 1975.19

Slayton logged 217 hours, 28 minutes, and 24 seconds during his only spaceflight. From December 1975 to November 1977, he served as manager for the Approach and Landing Test series at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, at Edwards. That program, using space shuttle Enterprise, verified the orbiter's pilot-guided approach and landing capability and subsonic airworthiness in preparation for the first manned orbital flight. The program ended with five free flights between August and October 1977.20

From November 1977 to February 1982, Slayton served as manager for the Orbital Flight Training Program, directing orbital flight mission preparations and conducting mission operations during the first four shuttle spaceflights. He was also responsible for the Boeing 747/orbiter ferry program. Slayton retired from NASA on February 27, 1982, to become president and vice chairman of the board of Space Services Incorporated, a Houston-based private space firm that successfully launched it's Conestoga rocket in 1983 and subsequently offered to send human ashes into permanent orbital repose.21

In 1983, Space Services, American Science and Technology and Aeros Data Corporation formed a joint-venture called Space America Incorporated with Slayton as the chairman. 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.22

Slayton accumulated numerous awards and honors during his time with the Air Force and NASA, including: an honorary Doctorate of Science from Carthage College, in 1961; an honorary Doctorate of Engineering from Michigan Technological University in 1965; four NASA Distinguished Service Medals; two NASA Outstanding Leadership Medals, in 1978 and 1981; NASA Exceptional Service Medal; National Aeronautics Association (NAA) Robert J. Collier Trophy, in 1962; Society of Experimental Test Pilots (SETP) Iven C. Kincheloe Award, in 1963, and J.H. Doolittle Award, in 1972; General Billy Mitchell Award; National Institute of Social Science (NISS) Gold Medal, in 1975; Zeta Beta Tau's Richard Gottheil Medal, in 1975; Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) National Space Award, in 1976; Federation Aeronautique Internationale (FAI) Yuri Gagarin Gold Medal, in 1976; American Heart Association's Heart of the Year Award, in 1976; District 35-R Lions International American of the Year Award, in 1976; American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Special Presidential Citation, in 1977, and Haley Astronautics Award, in 1978; University of Minnesota's Outstanding Achievement Award, in 1977; Houston Area Federal Business Association's Civil Servant of the Year Award, in 1977; and the American Astronautical Society (AAS) Flight Achievement Award, for 1976-1977.23

Slayton had gray hair, blue eyes, stood 5 feet 10 inches, and weighed 165 pounds. He was married to the former Marjorie Lunney until their divorce. He married the former Bobbie Osborn of Dickinson, Texas, on October 8, 1983. He had one child, Kent Sherman, born on April 8, 1957, by his first marriage.24 Slayton died of brain cancer in June 1993.25


Carpenter | Cooper | Glenn | Grissom | Schirra | Shepard | Slayton

1.Hawthorne, Douglas B. Men and Women of Space (San Diego: Univelt Incorporated, 1992), p. 675.
2. Carpenter, M. Scott, et al. We Seven (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962), p. 87.
3.Hawthorne, p. 676.
4.Ibid., pp. 675–676.
5.Ibid., p. 676.
6.Carpenter, et al., p. 88.
7. "Donald K. Slayton." Manned Spacecraft Center Biographical Data (Houston, Texas: July 1968), p. 2.
8."Donald Kent Slayton." National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Washington, DC: May 1961).
9.Carpenter, et al., pp. 88–89.
10. Ibid., pp. 94–95.
11. "John Glenn." John Glenn Biography, 1998. http://muskingum.edu/~publicr/history/glenn.html (July 8, 1998), p. 3.
12.Hawthorne, p. 676.
13."Carpenter Replaces Slayton as MA-7 Pilot." NASA Press Release, March 15, 1962.
14."Donald Kent Slayton, Astronaut: NASA Manned Spacecraft Center." Together Let Us Explore the Stars: Astronaut Series-Space Craft Explorer Supplement. Hereafter referred to as Astronaut Series.
15."Mercury Astronaut Slayton Assigned to New Duties." NASA News Release, July 11, 1962.
16.Astronaut Series.
17.Hawthorne, p. 676.
19.Ibid., p. 677.
23.Hawthorne, p. 675.
25. Shepard, Alan B., Jr., and Deke Slayton. Moon Shot (Atlanta: Turner Publishing, 1994), p. 11.

Carpenter | Cooper | Glenn | Grissom | Schirra | Shepard | Slayton