“Change in Velocity”: The Misfortune of Deke Slayton – Part 1

The front row of the Mercury Seven were directly involved in the misfortune of Deke Slayton (second left). During the run-up to John Glenn's (second right) mission, Slayton's heart murmur received public attention. Slayton's flight was eventually taken by Scott Carpenter (far right), to the annoyance of Slayton's own backup, Wally Schirra (far left). Photo Credit: NASA

Five decades ago, this month, America was in the throes of euphoria. Astronaut John Glenn had returned triumphantly to Earth after orbiting the globe three times in his Mercury capsule, Friendship 7, and more flights were on the horizon. In April 1962, Deke Slayton would repeat Glenn’s achievement, spending almost five hours in space, and although it would not perform any substantially ‘new’ or groundbreaking tasks, it was, after all, a flight into space…an experience that only five other men had experienced. To say the least, Slayton was excited. Yet this week, 50 years ago, that excitement abruptly evaporated, when a medical problem that Slayton and others considered insignificant came back to bite him. Little could he have foreseen that the events of those few days in March 1962 would not only change his life, but also the future of America’s manned space programme.

In keeping with tradition, Slayton had already picked a name for his capsule – ‘Delta 7’, the fourth letter of the Greek alphabet for the fourth manned Mercury mission – which he described in his autobiography, Deke, as “a nice engineering term that described a change in velocity”. Unfortunately, Slayton’s velocity, both in spacecraft and high-performance jets, would change markedly, due to the discovery of a minor, yet persistent heart condition, known as ‘idiopathic atrial fibrillation’. Every now and then, occasional irregularities would be detected in a muscle at the top of his heart; the precise cause was unknown and very rare in highly fit thirtysomethings like Slayton. Shortly after his selection as an astronaut in April 1959, traces of sinus arrhythmia came to the attention of doctors at the Johnsville centrifuge in Pennsylvania.

At first, they concluded that Slayton’s condition often went away with exertion, but its recurrence prompted Dr Bill Douglas – the Mercury Seven’s personal physician – to undertake a clinical electrocardiogram at the Philadelphia Navy Hospital. The results showed that the astronaut had a flutter in his heartbeat and tests at the US Air Force’s School of Aviation Medicine in Texas verified that it was of little consequence. NASA Headquarters and the Air Force’s Surgeon General recommended that no further action was necessary and Slayton’s file remained dormant for three years.

Then, a few days before Friendship 7 was due to launch, speculation arose that John Glenn had a heart problem. Apparently, an Air Force doctor named George Knauf, working at NASA Headquarters, had learned of this medical concern from “a source higher than the Department of Defense”. Glenn was quickly declared healthy, but the questions opened an unpleasant can of worms. Glenn’s backup, Scott Carpenter, was also found to be perfectly healthy…but Bill Douglas unwittingly revealed that Deke Slayton had a minor problem. He explained that it was well known and expected that to be the end of the matter.

It wasn’t.

The man who ultimately completed Deke Slayton's mission was fellow Mercury Seven astronaut Scott Carpenter, here pictured inspecting the spacecraft he renamed 'Aurora 7' and flew in May 1962. Carpenter had served as John Glenn's backup and the similarity of the two missions made it easier to assign Carpenter and keep Slayton's own backup, Wally Schirra, for a subsequent flight. Photo Credit: NASA

More ugliness emerged from the woodwork when flight surgeon Larry Lamb became involved. Lamb had examined Slayton at Brooks Air Force Base in Texas in 1959 and was convinced that the heart fibrillation should be a disqualifying factor. He had kept quiet at the time, but now spoke out. Years later, Slayton was certain that Lamb was not being malicious – it was simply his medical opinion – but unfortunately he also happened to be Vice President Lyndon Johnson’s cardiologist. Three weeks after Glenn’s mission, in early March 1962, NASA Administrator Jim Webb reopened the Slayton File and called the astronaut and Douglas to the Air Force Surgeon General’s office in Washington, DC. Again, the hands of good fortune seemed to fall in favour of Slayton. A panel of military physicians signed him off as fit to fly. So too did Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay.

For Webb, it was not enough. Eugene Zuckert, the Secretary of the Air Force, requested that a panel of civilian physicians should examine Slayton before final clearance should be granted. On 15 March, Proctor Harvey of Georgetown University, Thomas Mattingley of the Washington Hospital Center and Eugene Braunwell of the National Institutes of Health poked and prodded the astronaut and monitored his heart. When their tests were completed, they asked him to wait for their judgement.

Shortly thereafter, NASA Deputy Administrator Hugh Dryden himself entered the room and told Slayton – point blank – that he would not be flying in space. By now, the launch of Delta 7 had slipped until May…and with barely eight weeks to go, his months of training, preparedness and otherwise outstanding physical condition counted for nothing. Slayton was devastated. What made matters worse was that Harvey, Mattingley and Braunwell had found no medical reason to keep him off the mission, but their consensus was that if NASA hat astronauts without Slayton’s condition, then one of them should fly instead.

In his autobiography, the astronaut was doubtful that politics had played a role in the decision. Others have countered that it was an overwhelmingly political decision. Shortly before the Friendship 7 launch, the notoriously publicity-hungry Lyndon Johnson had asked to sit in Annie Glenn’s lounge (together with a television camera crew, of course) to show his support. The Glenns rejected Johnson’s request, a move which some felt precipitated an angry Vice President to order Jim Webb to exert greater control over his astronauts. To Slayton, something more practical was behind it.

It must have been a difficult sight to behold another astronaut - Scott Carpenter - flying the mission to which he had devoted so many months of training. By the time this photograph of Aurora 7 on the pad was taken, Deke Slayton's career had already shifted into astronaut office management...a shift which would earn him equal renown and lasting fame. Photo Credit: NASA

“NASA knew it would have to publicly disclose my heart condition prior to my flight,” he wrote in Deke. “There would be medical monitors at tracking stations all over the world who wouldn’t know how to react otherwise. Everybody expected this to be a big deal. NASA would be opening itself up to a lot of medical second-guessing.” If Slayton had fibrillated on the pad, inevitable questions would be raised; should the launch be aborted…or not? Still, many senior NASA personnel – Douglas, Bob Gilruth, Walt Williams and others – were confident that Slayton was the best person to follow John Glenn. They were prepared to take the heat for the decision. Jim Webb was not.

The head of the space agency feared that a disaster could trigger adverse headlines. “It didn’t matter that a whole lot of doctors thought I didn’t have a problem,” Slayton wrote of Webb’s judgement. “He was only going to listen to the few who did.” To be fair to Webb, a launch abort could subject the astronaut to gravitational loads as high as 21 G and, perhaps, with Slayton fibrillating and dehydrated, the mission could have fatal consequences. NASA itself was only four years old and President John Kennedy’s promise to land a man on the Moon before the end of the decade was far from certain. A dead astronaut threatened to destroy Kennedy’s plan and NASA would suffer as a result.

On 16 March 1962, the day after the decision, Deke Slayton sat through a lengthy press conference, during which the medical minutiae were examined. One journalist asked the astronaut if stress had caused the problem, to which Slayton responded – with a barbed hint of caustic irony – that the only stress in the space business was the press conference! Hugh Dryden explained that he might still be eligible for future mission assignments, although that seemed unlikely. Slayton gave up drinking, started working out more regularly – “quit doing everything that was fun, I guess,” he wrote – and even secured an appointment with Paul Dudley White, the cardiologist of former President Dwight Eisenhower.

When Deke Slayton was selected as one of America's first seven Mercury astronauts in April 1959, he could scarcely have imagined that he would wait 16 years before getting the chance to fly into space. During that time, as Co-ordinator of Astronaut Activities and Director of Flight Crew Operations, he would play a critical role in America's human space programme. Photo Credit: NASA

White acknowledged that the astronaut did not seem to have a problem, but endorsed the judgement of Harvey, Mattingley and Braunwell: that other astronauts should fly in his stead. Poor Slayton had no chance of drawing another Mercury mission assignment, and he was told that his condition would make him a “hard sell” to NASA management for Gemini, too. The hammer blow came when the Air Force decided that Slayton no longer met the requirement for a Class I pilot’s licence – he could no longer fly solo – and in November 1963 he resigned from the service.

Slayton would eventually fly into space…but not until July 1975, by which time he was 51 years old. A lesser man might have thrown in the towel and departed NASA with the same amount of disappointment as he had left the Air Force; but Slayton was a giant of a man and could hardly have known at the time how significant his role on the future of America’s space programme would be. In the summer of 1962, as NASA prepared to expand its astronaut corps with nine new pilots, Slayton was appointed ‘Co-ordinator of Astronaut Activities’. The other astronauts loathed the idea of an outside manager or a military superior to serve as their boss. “We wanted someone who knew us,” wrote Slayton’s contemporary, Wally Schirra, “who trained with us. Deke was the one and only choice.” In the years to come, Slayton would be omnipotent amongst the astronauts and by his hand the career paths of the men who walked on the Moon would be  directly shaped.

Ben Evans is the author of “A History of Human Space Exploration”, a six-volume series to commemorate the first half-century of humanity’s adventure in space. The series is published by Springer-Praxis. Copies of the first three volumes in the series – “Escaping the Bonds of Earth” (1961-68), “Foothold in the Heavens” (1969-74) and “At Home in Space” (1974-82) – are available for purchase from the author. Individual books may be purchased for 22 GBP + 4 GBP postage or 58 GBP + 8 GBP postage for all three books. Requests can be made through Paypal to michelleevans08@hotmail.co.uk.

 

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