“Fifty-Year-Old Rookie”: The Fortune of Deke Slayton – Part 2

Deke Slayton might have hoped that the first human steps on the Moon might have been taken by himself. Instead, he would play a crucial role in selecting Neil Armstrong - here shown in the shadow of the lunar module, Eagle - to take those historic steps. Photo Credit: NASA

The year 1969 was unquestionably the most triumphant of the United States’ history. On its sixth day, Deke Slayton called astronauts Neil Armstrong, Mike Collins and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin into his office at NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston with some electrifying news: they were the crew for Apollo 11. If the schedule worked out as planned, they would be the first team of astronauts to attempt a landing on the Moon. A few years earlier, as one of America’s first seven astronauts, Slayton hoped that the first man to plant his bootprints in the ancient lunar dust might well be himself…but it was not to be. A minor heart murmur had grounded him from flying in space – and even from flying solo in an aircraft – and since 1962 he had been responsible for the selection of training of other astronauts as NASA’s Co-ordinator of Astronaut Activities and, later, as Director of Flight Crew Operations. Among the astronauts, he was seen as ‘Father Slayton’, their boss and mentor, but as Slayton signed off each successive crew as fit to fly, he yearned to fly in their stead.

By the spring of 1970, that chance seemed more unlikely than ever. Now forty-six years old, Slayton’s chance of ever regaining a pilot’s licence seemed remote…until, one day in the summer of that year, he was in Wyoming on an antelope hunt and experienced his first heart fibrillation in several months. In fact, it was his first such murmur ever since flight surgeon Chuck Berry loaded him up on vitamins following a rotten cold, around the time of Apollo 13 in April. As a personal experiment, Slayton started taking the vitamins again. To his astonishment, the fibrillations went away! He knew that it was not hard evidence, but made him wonder if it increased his chances of someday returning to active flight status.

More than a year later, in late 1971, Berry was at a medical conference in Istanbul and happened to mention Slayton to Hal Mankin, a heart specialist. Mankin agreed to run some tests and in December Slayton flew to Minnesota and checked into the Mayo Clinic under the false name of Dick K. King. At length, Mankin told Berry that Slayton was “good as gold” and the astronaut requalified for a Class I pilot’s licence in March 1972. By remarkable coincidence, it was precisely a decade to the very month since Slayton had been grounded…and he was restored to active astronaut status.

Yet there was a problem. As Project Apollo wound down, the remaining crew positions had been taken. So too had the places on three Skylab missions, scheduled for 1973, and although Slayton probably had the power to force himself onto a crew, he considered it unconscionable to pull the rug out from beneath a fellow astronaut. The Space Shuttle was too far away into the future. Only one other mission offered a possibility: the joint Apollo-Soyuz venture with the Soviet Union, planned for July 1975. As Director of Flight Crew Operations, Slayton ordinarily oversaw crew selection, but now he approached Chris Kraft, the head of the Manned Spacecraft Center, to offer himself as a candidate. In effect, Slayton asked Kraft to handle the Apollo-Soyuz crew selection on his behalf.

Two weeks before launch, on 2 July 1975, the American half of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project stands ready to fly on Pad 39B at the Kennedy Space Center. After 16 years of frustration, space was within Deke Slayton's grasp. Photo Credit: NASA

Early in June 1972, a few weeks after President Richard Nixon and General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev had signed the deal for Apollo-Soyuz, Kraft pointedly asked Slayton for his recommendation for the American crew. Confident that his seniority would guarantee him a command position, Slayton named himself at the head of the crew, with fellow astronaut Vance Brand as command module pilot and Apollo 13 veteran Jack Swigert as the docking module pilot. Slayton held both men in very high regard; Brand had already served on the Apollo 15 backup crew and was then training as backup commander for two Skylab missions, whilst Swigert had joined Apollo 13 with a few days’ notice and had performed admirably during one of America’s most harrowing space missions.

The unlucky Swigert vanished from consideration almost as soon as he was proposed, as the result of a particularly ugly affair in 1971 when the Apollo 15 crew sold unauthorised first-day covers. It was found that Swigert had dabbled in similar money-making schemes, which, whilst not illegal, were perceived by NASA brass as having tarnished the reputation of the astronauts. Eitherway, Swigert was suspended from flight status. One other astronaut who had a good chance was Tom Stafford, who had served as chief of the corps from 1969-1971 and had a good relationship with the Soviets. He attended the funerals of the Soyuz 11 crew, participated in a number of working groups to Moscow and now recommended himself as commander of the American half of the joint mission.

In January 1973, Deke Slayton was called into Chris Kraft’s office, along with Stafford and Brand, for a piece of news that brought both joy and disappointment: after almost 14 years with NASA, ‘Father Slayton’ would finally fly…but not as the Apollo commander. Stafford, though junior in management terms, already had three previous space missions to his credit, and would thus command the flight. Brand would be the command module pilot and Slayton the docking module pilot. It was “a little deflating”, Slayton wrote in his autobiography, Deke, but understood the rationale of flying an experienced pilot and one whom the Russians had grown to trust. In his own autobiography, We Have Capture, Stafford related that there was “never a moment’s tension” between the two men.

Within the cramped confines of the Apollo command module simulator, astronauts Deke Slayton, Vance Brand and Tom Stafford rehearse their duties. It must have been more than a dream come true for Slayton, at last, to be assigned to a Prime Crew. Photo Credit: NASA

The media, of course, saw it differently, and said so, too. On 1 February, at a press conference in Houston, one journalist asked Slayton how he felt about taking orders from an astronaut who was, in effect, his deputy. “I see absolutely no problem with that at all,” Slayton replied. “The commander is the commander and there’s no doubt on this flight who’s going to be the commander. It’s Tom Stafford. Now, when we’re on the ground, working the other problems, then obviously we’ve got a normal and working relationship. I’m responsible to Tom to be ready for this flight…and he’s responsible to me to see the crew’s ready to go!” At this delightfully humorous irony, Slayton’s eyes twinkled and the entire auditorium broke into laughter.

He also found humour in another inevitable point: that he would be the oldest man ever rocketed into space. “Well,” Slayton replied, “I guess I’d rather be a 50-year-old rookie than a 50-year-old has-been!” In more ways than one, he was far from a has-been and had acted as a virtual father figure to many of the astronauts. Mike Collins labelled him “the best” and John Glenn remarked on his dependability “to get the job done, no matter what the job was”. On the flyleaf of Slayton’s autobiography, a Los Angeles Times reviewer noted that it was “one of the great fortunes of Apollo that [he] was grounded…for in Father Slayton NASA had the man who could set the rotations, pick the crews and make the decisions the astronauts wouldn’t have accepted from a bureaucrat or a scientist”. Tomorrow, in the final part of this article, Slayton’s background and how it marked him out for greatness will be explored. From a childhood spent tied to a tree to a sheared-off ring finger and from a UFO sighting to an aviation career characterised by “pure horseshit luck”, Slayton’s early life and upbringing was almost as dramatic as anything the space programme could offer.

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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