Organizing the Astronaut Corps

The first group of astronauts immediately became public figures, and as Mercury shifted into flight operations in the closing days of 1961, demands on their time for interviews and personal appearances multiplied. NASA welcomed the publicity for the space program, but this aspect of the astronauts' status often made impossible demands on their heavy training schedule. And when a second program, Gemini, was established late in the year, it was clear that more astronauts would be entering the program, further complicating training and flight preparations. When Space Task Group managers decided that someone should be appointed to organize the astronauts' activities more efficiently, some of the astronauts suggested that they would prefer to have one of their own rather than an outsider in that job. As it happened, one was available.

Air Force Captain Donald K. ("Deke") Slayton, assigned to the second Mercury orbital flight, had been grounded a few weeks before the mission when physicians discovered a minor (and, as it turned out, apparently harmless) irregularity in his heartbeat. Although no one could definitely say that Slayton's condition would endanger him or the mission, neither would any medical expert assure NASA that no risk was involved. Prudence, a quality which NASA's high-level managers possessed in full measure, dictated that someone without any detectable abnormality should fly the mission instead, and Slayton was grounded until the physicians could be confident he was physically qualified to fly.11

Slayton was one of the most experienced of the original seven astronauts. He had flown combat missions in Europe and the Pacific in World War II and had been a test pilot assigned to fighter operations at the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base when he was selected as an astronaut. His personal commitment to the manned space program was complete. He had vigorously defended the cause of humans in space before the Society of Experimental Test Pilots when most test pilots, unfamiliar with the actual course that the project was taking, considered that Mercury offered them no future and little valuable experience. His disqualification, especially on physical grounds, was a shock to everyone in the project as well as to the public. It was personally devastating to him; besides losing out in the competition for a space flight assignment, he was forbidden by the Air Force to fly alone in high-performance aircraft.12

In September 1962 Slayton was appointed Coordinator of Astronaut Activities, reporting to Gilruth. Without complaint, he took over the largely administrative duties of scheduling training activities, visits to contractor plants, and public appearances and interviews with the news media. But the most important responsibility he assumed was that of assigning astronauts to specific missions. This responsibility he shared with no one else; although he had plenty of help in assessing each candidate's personal and professional qualifications and mastery of the spacecraft systems and mission plans, Slayton made the final decision. His decisions stuck: in the entire manned program, from the later Mercury flights through the Skylab missions, he could later recall only one instance in which higher authority challenged his judgment.13

When the Manned Spacecraft Center was reorganized the following year, Slayton's position was redesignated Assistant Director for Flight Crew Operations, organizationally on a level with the assistant directors* for engineering, flight operations, and administration.14 For some time he was also chief of the Astronaut Office, the administrative unit that coordinated training and other astronaut activities, and he continued training with the first two groups as much as he could, hoping for eventual reassignment to flying status. Under Deke Slayton the Astronaut Office was run much like a military unit - which for several years it effectively was, since almost all the astronauts were or had been Air Force, Navy, or Marine officers. He encouraged open communication between himself and the astronauts, but expected that when a decision had been made the discussion was finished. As one of the astronauts characterized Slayton's management style, the astronaut's job was "to do what the commanding officer says, and if you (didn't) want to. . . , the door was always open"15 - the door marked "this way out." Astronauts came into the program voluntarily and they could always leave the same way.

Slayton well understood the position manned space flight occupied in the national space program as a consequence of its prominence in the public eye: any failure, especially one that endangered or killed an astronaut, could set back the lunar landing for years, and might even kill the manned space flight program. His contribution to avoiding failure was to pick the best people for the crews, and as long as manned space flight entailed any hazardous uncertainties, the best people would be experienced test pilots.

* The title "Assistant Director for. . . ," meant "assistant to the director of MSC in charge of. . . " but was applied to the heads of directorates. This confusing designation was later dropped and chiefs of directorates were called simply "directors of. . . . "

11. Swenson, Grimwood, and Alexander, This New Ocean, pp. 440-42.

12. Ibid., pp. In, 442.

13. Donald K. Slayton interview, Oct. 15, 1984. Slayton's comments on this case: "There were two situations where we had a strong input from Headquarters. One was on Apollo 13, where for some reason George Mueller didn't like the crew I had assigned to fly 13 and insisted on turning them around. . . . We wound up switching the 13 and 14 crews around. . . . The other thing, . . . on 13, Mattingly had that medical problem [exposure to rubella]. . . ." Alan Shepard was commander of the crew that flew Apollo 14, so the original assignment would have given him command of Apollo 13. At the time those two crews were publicly named (August 1969 Shepard had been back on flight duty less than six months after spending almost five years off the active list for medical reasons.

14. Slayton interview by Robert B. Merrifield, Oct. 17, 1967, transcript in JSC History Office files; MSC Space News Roundup, Sept. 19, 1962; MSC Announcements 190, Apr. 29, 1963, and 268, Nov. 5, 1963.

15. Alan L. Bean interview, Apr. 10, 1984.

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