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Donald Kent “Deke” Slayton (March 1, 1924 – June 13, 1993) was one of the original NASAmarker Mercury Seven astronauts. After initially being grounded by a heart condition, he 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 as the docking module pilot of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. At the time of the flight, he became the oldest person to fly into space, a record currently held by John Glenn on STS-95.

Early life

Slayton was born on a farm near Sparta, Wisconsinmarker. A childhood farm equipment accident left him with a severed left ring finger. He entered the United States Army Air Forces as a cadet in 1942, training as a B-25 bomber pilot. 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.

After the war, Slayton earned a bachelor of science degree in aeronautical engineering from the University of Minnesotamarker.

Slayton became one of the NACA test pilots at Edwards AFBmarker in California. He tested supersonic Air Force fighters, including the F-101, F-102, F-105, and F-106, and was responsible for determining stall-spin characteristics for the large F-105, which became the principal fighter bomber used by the USAF over North Vietnam.

Mercury Seven

Slayton was chosen as one of the original seven American Astronauts in 1959. He was scheduled to fly in 1962 on the second orbital flight (to have been named "Delta 7", the name coming from the mission being the fourth spaceflight—the fourth letter in the Greek alphabet and the seven astronauts), but because of an erratic heart rate (idiopathic atrial fibrillation), he was grounded, and his place was taken by Scott Carpenter aboard "Aurora 7". Slayton was the only member of the Mercury Seven who did not fly on the Mercury program. He was one of the eight Paresev pilots.

Gemini and Apollo selection

When NASA grounded Slayton, the Air Force followed suit. Slayton resigned his Air Force commission in 1963 and worked for NASAmarker in a civilian capacity as head of astronaut selection. Unofficially called "Chief Astronaut," 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.

Apollo-Soyuz flight

A long medical program led to Slayton being restored to full flight status in 1972, when he was selected as docking module pilot for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, designed to allow a docking between the American Apollo spacecraft and the Soyuz spacecraft of the Soviet Unionmarker. On July 17, 1975, the two craft joined up in orbit, and astronauts Slayton, Thomas Stafford and Vance D. Brand conducted crew transfers with cosmonauts Aleksey A. Leonov and Valeriy 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, Hawaiimarker for two weeks. During hospitalization, a lesion was discovered on Slayton's lung and removed. It was determined to be benign.

Upon his return from the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project flight, he became Head of Shuttle Approach and Landing Tests Program for NASA's space shuttle program.


Slayton retired from NASA in 1982. After retirement, he served as president of Space Services, Inc., a Houston-based company he founded to develop rockets for small commercial payloads. He helped design and build 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. Slayton also became interested in aviation racing.

Slayton penned an autobiography with space historian Michael Cassutt entitled Deke!: U.S. Manned Space from Mercury to the Shuttle. As well as Slayton's own astronaut experiences, the book describes the way in which 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. 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.

Shortly after he moved to League City, Texasmarker in 1992, Slayton was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. He succumbed to the illness the following summer.


With the other Mercury astronauts, Slayton was awarded the Collier Trophy in 1962 for "pioneering manned spaceflight in the USA".

Slayton was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Famemarker in 1996.

The Deke Slayton Cancer Center (located on Medical Center Blvd. in Webster, Texasmarker) was named in his honor.

The main stretch of road in League City, TX FM518 was renamed Deke Slayton.

The Deke Slayton Memorial Space & Bike Museum in Sparta, Wisconsin was named in his honor. The Museum's Donald Kent "Deke" Slayton exhibit examines the accomplishments of one of Monroe County, Wisconsin's most famous sons. Deke was born in a hospital in Sparta WI, raised on a farm just north of Leon WI. He attended elementary school in Leon WI and graduated from Sparta WI High School. The biographical exhibit includes Deke's Mercury 7 Space suit, his Ambassador of Exploration Award, which showcases a lunar sample and much more. In nearby La Crosse, Wisconsin, an annual summer aircraft airshow, the Deke Slayton Airfest, has been held in his honor, featuring modern and vintage military and civilian aircraft, along with NASAmarker speakers.

Appearances in media

See also

Books authored

  • Author in name only.
  • Credited as "by THE ASTRONAUTS Themselves" on book cover. Names listed on Title Page.


  1. history office, Peter W. Merlin, compilation done in 1998
  2. "Sept. 9, 1982: 3-2-1 … Liftoff! The First Private Rocket Launch" by John C. Abell, Wired Magazine, September 9, 2009

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