Donald “Deke” Slayton was born on March 1, 1924, in Sparta, Wisconsin. He graduated from Sparta High School and entered the Air Force as an aviation cadet. He received his wings in April 1943 after completing flight training at Vernon and Waco, Texas. As a B-25 pilot with the 340th Bombardment Group, he flew 56 combat missions in Europe. Slayton returned to the United States in 1944 as a B-25 instructor pilot at Columbia, South Carolina, and later served with a unit responsible for checking pilot proficiency in the A-26. In early July 1945, he was sent to Okinawa with the 319th Bombardment Group and flew seven combat missions over Japan. He served as a B-25 instructor for a year following the end of the war then left the Air Force to enter the University of Minnesota.
Slayton received a Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the University of Minnesota in 1949 and became an aeronautical engineer. He worked for two years with the Boeing Aircraft Corporation at Seattle, Washington before being recalled to active duty in 1951 with the Minnesota Air National Guard.
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, and a tour as a fighter pilot and maintenance officer with the 36th Fighter Day Wing at Bitburg, Germany. Returning to the United States in June 1955, he attended the USAF Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base, California. He remained there from January 1956 until April 1959 as a test pilot for fighter aircraft. In his Air Force career, he logged 7,164 hours flying time including more than 5,100 hours in jet aircraft.
“Deke” Slayton was one of the original Mercury astronauts selected by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on April 2, 1959. He was scheduled to pilot the Mercury-Atlas 7 mission but was relieved of this assignment due to a heart condition discovered in August 1959. After being officially grounded on September 18, 1962, Slayton was designated Coordinator of Astronaut Activities at the Manned Spacecraft Center (now the Johnson Space Center), in Houston, Texas. On November 5, 1963, he was named Assistant Director for Flight Crew Operations and played a major role in many of the decisions involving flight crews during the Gemini and Apollo programs.
In December of 1971, NASA doctors determined that Slayton no longer had any sign of a coronary disorder and restored him to full flight status on March 13, 1972. In 1975, “Deke” Slayton made his only space flight sixteen years after becoming an astronaut, the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (ASTP) mission. This was a joint space flight culminating in the historic first meeting in space between American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts. The ASTP marked the successful testing of a universal docking system and signaled a major advance in efforts to pave the way for the conduct of joint experiments and/or the exchange of mutual assistance in future international space explorations.
The American crew for the ASTP was announced on January 30, 1973. Slayton was named the Docking Module pilot, Tom Stafford the Commander and Vance Brand the Command Module pilot. The Apollo-Soyuz mission began with the liftoff of the Soyuz-19 spacecraft (crewed by cosmonauts Valery Kubasov and Alexei Leonov) from Baikanor in Central Asia on July 16, 1975. Its American counterpart, informally known as “Apollo 18” launched seven and a half hours later from the Kennedy Space Center, Florida. On July 18, the Apollo craft accomplished a successful rendezvous and docking with the Soyuz. The linkup tested a unique, new docking system and demonstrated international cooperation in space. There were 44 hours of docked joint activities, including four crew transfers between the Apollo and the Soyuz. Twenty-eight experiments were performed during the flight. Six records for docked and group flight were set on the mission, the American portion of which ended with a safe splashdown in the Pacific Ocean on July 24 after 217 hours in space.
Slayton ran the Approach and Landing Test program for the Space Shuttle program’s orbital test flights after his ASTP mission. His group proved that un-powered landings of the shuttle orbiter were possible and validated the aerodynamics of the vehicle. From December 1975 through November 1977, Slayton directed a series of critical Orbiter flight tests including extensive evaluations of the Orbiter’s subsonic flying qualities and performance characteristics. From November 1977, until his 1982 retirement, Major Slayton was Manager for Approach and Landing Test for the Space Shuttle program. In 1981, he also directed orbital flight mission preparations and missions operations for the first two shuttle flights, STS-1 and STS-2.
Major Donald “Deke” Slayton retired from both the Air Force and NASA on February 27, 1982, to enter Formula One airplane racing. By 1990, Slayton raced 43 times in eighteen different meets. He was also a consultant to Space Services, Incorporated, and later was president of the company. In 1988, Slayton co-wrote, with fellow astronaut Alan Shepard, Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America’s Race to the Moon. Their book was made into a documentary film of the same name in 1994. Slayton also wrote his autobiography, Deke!: An Autobiography. Major Slayton died on June 13, 1993, in League City, Texas.
During his career, Slayton was awarded the NASA Distinguished Service Medal three times. He also received NASA’s Exceptional Service Medal; the Collier Trophy; the SETP Ivan C. Kincheloe Award; the Gen. Billy Mitchell Award; the SEPT J.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 District 35-R Lions International American of the Year Award (1976); the AIAA Special Presidential Citation (1977); the AAS Flight Achievement Award for 1976 (1977); the AIAA Haley Astronautics Award for 1978; and the NASA Outstanding Leadership Medal (1978).