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60 and 50 Years Ago: Astronaut Slayton Grounded in 1962, Reinstated in 1972

Donald K. “Deke” Slayton, one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts that NASA selected in April 1959, lost his chance to become the second American to orbit the Earth when doctors noted he had a slight heart irregularity. Grounded from flying in space, Slayton instead turned to lead NASA’s team of astronauts for the next 10 years. After rigorous medical examinations, flight surgeons cleared Slayton for spaceflight in March 1972. The following year NASA assigned Slayton to the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, the first joint mission between the United States and the Soviet Union. After waiting 16 years for his spaceflight, Slayton spent nine days in orbit in July 1975. He later managed the space shuttle Approach and Landing Test and the Orbital Flight Test programs before retiring from NASA in 1982.

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Left: Donald K. “Deke” Slayton, center, and the other six Mercury astronauts pose following their introduction to the media on April 9, 1959. Middle: Official portrait of Slayton from 1960. Right: Slayton wearing a Mercury spacesuit during training in 1962.

At a press conference on Nov. 29, 1961, Director Robert R. Gilruth of the Manned Spacecraft Center, now NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, announced the astronauts assigned to the first two orbital Mercury flights. John H. Glenn would fly the first three-orbit mission, then planned for January 1962, with M. Scott Carpenter serving as his backup. Slayton was assigned to the second mission scheduled for April – essentially a repeat Glenn’s three-orbit flight – with Walter M. Schirra as his backup. Slayton decided to name his capsule Delta 7, keeping the tradition of Mercury astronauts naming their spacecraft, followed by the number “7.” As early as mid-1959, flight surgeons had noted that Slayton occasionally displayed a minor heart irregularity known as idiopathic atrial fibrillation, and initially they believed it did not interfere with his astronaut duties, including training for his spaceflight. However, in February 1962 as his spaceflight approached, doctors revisited the issue and put Slayton through a battery of tests. They finally concluded that although it most likely would not manifest itself in the few hours Slayton would be in space and even then would not cause a problem, with knowledge of the effects of spaceflight on the heart still poorly understood, they couldn’t take a chance. On March 15, 1962, NASA announced that Slayton was grounded, not only from spaceflight but also from flying solo in high-performance jets. Instead of assigning his backup Schirra to the mission, now delayed to May, NASA chose to fly Carpenter, who had trained more extensively as Glenn’s backup.

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Left: Astronaut Donald K. “Deke” Slayton with his wife Marge and son Kent during the 1962 Fourth of July parade in Houston. Right: Slayton, right, with the other six Mercury astronauts at the Houston Coliseum for the 1962 Fourth of July barbecue.

The grounding dealt a setback to Slayton’s ambitions to fly in space, but he never gave up on his dream. Unable to fly himself, he became the leader of, and a staunch advocate for, his fellow astronauts, first as coordinator of astronaut activities and later as the director of flight crew operations. One of his first tasks involved the selection of the second group of astronauts for Project Gemini in September 1962, and later the selection of several additional groups. He assigned the crews for Gemini, Apollo, and Skylab missions, and remained involved in all important training and flight activities. He maintained a strict exercise and diet regimen including daily vitamins, hoping that one day flight surgeons would clear him for a spaceflight.

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Left: Director of Flight Crew Operations Donald K. “Deke” Slayton in the Mission Control Center at NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center, now NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, monitoring the Gemini IV mission in June 1965. Middle: Slayton, right, having breakfast with the Apollo 11 astronauts the morning of their launch on July 16, 1969. Right: Slayton, center, during a postflight debriefing with the Apollo 13 crew and Saturn V rocket designer Wernher von Braun in April 1970.

Slayton passed a series of medical tests administered by cardiac specialists in December 1971, and on March 13, 1972, NASA reinstated Slayton to spaceflight status. Unfortunately, as he had already assigned crews to the last two Apollo Moon landing missions and the three Skylab long-duration missions, no flight opportunities immediately presented themselves. A joint mission with the Soviet Union, agreed to at a May 1972 summit meeting in Moscow, offered a glimmer of hope. On Jan. 30, 1973, NASA announced the American crew for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, with Slayton assigned as the Docking Module Pilot.

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Left: Donald K. “Deke” Slayton, lower left, as a member of the Apollo-Soyuz Test
Project (ASTP) crew. Right: Slayton in the Docking Module during the
ASTP mission in July 1975.

After more than two years of training, including several trips to the Soviet Union, Slayton finally reached space on July 15, 1975, riding a Saturn IB rocket from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Two days later, he and his crewmates Thomas P. Stafford and Vance D. Brand docked their Apollo spacecraft with the Soviet Soyuz 19. For two days, they worked together with cosmonauts Aleksei A. Leonov and Valeri N. Kubasov before going their separate ways. After nine days in orbit, their Apollo spacecraft splashed down in the Pacific Ocean. During the descent on its parachutes, the Apollo capsule filled with toxic nitrogen tetroxide from its thrusters through a valve inadvertently left open. All three astronauts suffered pulmonary problems from the exposure and remained hospitalized in Hawaii for more than two weeks. Doctors noted a spot on Slayton’s lung on a chest X-ray, and once back in Houston he underwent surgery. The lump turned out to be benign.

msc_presser_to_explain_ca_enterprise_flights_apr_1977 slayton_w_haise_and_fullerton_edwards_after_alt_1_aug_12_1977
Left: Manager of the space shuttle Approach and Landing Tests (ALT), Donald K. “Deke” Slayton explains the role of the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft during an April 1977 press conference. Right: Slayton, left, with astronauts Fred W. Haise and C. Gordon Fullerton at a press conference following the ALT-1 flight in August 1977.

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Left: In March 1979, a young reporter interviews astronaut Donald K. “Deke” Slayton at Kelly Air Force Base in San Antonio where the space shuttle Columbia, atop its Shuttle Carrier Aircraft, made an overnight stop. Middle: Portrait of Slayton in 1981 as manager of the space shuttle Orbital Flight Test program. Right: In December 2015, a photograph of Slayton greeted the Expedition 45 crew aboard the space station when it opened the hatch to the Cygnus spacecraft called the S.S. Deke Slayton.

Once the postflight goodwill tours for ASTP ended, Slayton embarked on the next phase of his NASA career as the manager of the space shuttle Approach and Landing Tests. The program conducted critical atmospheric tests with space shuttle Enterprise in 1977 at NASA’s Dryden (now Armstrong) Flight Research Center in California. Those tests concluded, Slayton turned to manage the shuttle’s Orbital Flight Test program, the first four orbital missions beginning with Columbia’s maiden voyage in April 1981. Slayton retired from NASA in February 1982 following a stellar 23-year career. He died on June 13, 1993. To honor Slayton and his accomplishments, the Orbital ATK Corporation, now part of Northrop Grumman, named their Cygnus spacecraft supporting its 4th cargo resupply services mission to the International Space Station the S.S. Deke Slayton. A photograph of Slayton greeted the Expedition 45 crew when it opened the hatch to the spacecraft in December 2015.