From his earliest childhood memories to the very end of his life in June 1993, Deke Slayton was an adventurer at heart. As a four-year-old child, whenever allowed outside into the front yard, he was tied to a tree by his mother at playtime – not as a punishment, but out of her sheer fright at the volume of traffic hurtling past the family’s dairy farm in small-town Wisconsin. “Eventually,” Slayton wrote in his autobiography, Deke, “I convinced my mother that I wasn’t going to go running into the road and I was set free. But I can make the case that ever since I was young I have wanted to explore…and people have tried to stop me.” Slayton came from the small town of Sparta, where he was born on 1 March 1924 and it was the trials and tribulations of his formative years which proved the making of him.
On the farm, he learned through hard work the skills and benefits of business, entrepreneurship, book-keeping and even veterinary science. Years later, he would declare, only partly in jest, that “compulsory farm rearing” might form an excellent character-building experiment. There was a dangerous side, however. One day in 1929, he was helping his father to clear hay from a horse-drawn mower…when it sheared the ring finger of his left hand cleanly off. “I was luckier than hell,” Slayton later reflected, “because I could have lost all of them. My dad was pretty upset about it.” Physically, it offered few problems and when he took up boxing in his teens he found that he could hit his opponent just as hard with his left fist as with his right. Nonetheless, he regarded it as a handicap of sorts and was convinced that his missing ring finger was the first thing anyone noticed about him.
Surprisingly, Slayton grew up with a fear of warfare, but a love of aviation. Four months after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, in April 1942, he joined the US Army Air Corps and received flight training in Texas. The missing ring finger almost eliminated him from consideration, but after his superiors checked the regulations it was discovered “that the ring finger on your left hand was the only finger you could have missing on either hand and be qualified as a pilot”. The reason? The ring finger on the left hand was considered to be the most useless finger! Doubtless, many divorcees would be inclined to agree…
As a pilot, Slayton found a natural affinity for the air, flying Stearman biplanes and single-winged Fairchild PT-19s and North American Aviation’s AT-6 Texan. After multi-engine training, he became a combat-ready bomber pilot and flew the B-25 Mitchell in North Africa and, later, in the ruined Italian city of Naples. “There’s a lot of just pure horseshit luck in flying,” he wrote in his typically straightforward manner. On several occasions, he nursed B-25s back to base with blown tyres and missing hydraulics, riddled with hundreds of bullet holes from anti-aircraft gunfire. All told, Slayton flew 56 missions and a handful over Japan, based in Okinawa, before two “big bombs” were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 and his combat career ended.
After a year as a B-25 instructor, Slayton left the Air Force in November 1946 and entered the University of Minnesota to study aeronautical engineering. He kept up his proficiency in the Air Force Reserve and joined the Minnesota Air National Guard, flying P-51 Mustang fighters. After gaining his degree, he worked for Boeing on the B-52 Stratofortress bomber, but the outbreak of the Korean War drew him back to armed service. Unfortunately, since he had not applied for inactive reserve status within the required six months after leaving the Minnesota Air National Guard, Slayton was forced to resume his Air Force career from scratch. With the help of a former squadron commander, however, he secured a place as a maintenance officer.
Two incidents of note emerged in this period. The first was an immense storm which damaged 90 percent of the aircraft in his care…and the second was his sighting of a UFO whilst wringing out a newly-repaired P-51. It looked like a kite at first, but as Slayton drew closer he became convinced it was more likely a weather balloon…until he approached it from a slightly different angle and it took the form of a disk. It climbed at a 45-degree angle, then disappeared. Slayton did not report the incident for a couple of days, then happened to drop it out in conversation – only to be hauled before an Intelligence panel to make a formal statement. The official position was that a local company had been testing a weather balloon and it had been tracked by Slayton, a light aircraft and two ground-based observers. The only point of confusion was that its velocity was more than 4,000 mph! “I don’t automatically presume that it came from Alpha Centauri,” Slayton wrote, “just because I can’t identify it. It’s still an open question to me.”
Slayton’s desire to participate in Korea came to nothing and he served three years in Germany as a maintenance inspector and squadron maintenance officer, securing his first experience in jet fighters. Then, in June 1955, he entered test pilot school at Edwards Air Force Base in California. Testing edge-of-the-envelope military aircraft in the 1950s was risky and the pilots did not know the performance characteristics until they got back on the ground and examined the data. Unlike today’s test pilots, who can analyse everything in real time with telemetry and computers, the situation in Slayton’s day was quite different. “We had to lay out a flight plan,” he wrote, “and say ‘Okay, I think I can go this far this time’. If you guessed right, you were okay. If you didn’t…”
By the middle of the 1950s, Slayton was a test pilot at Edwards. He gained the nickname ‘Deke’ (from the first and middle initials of his name, Donald Kent) when the presence of another pilot, Don Sorlie, in his unit triggered confusion in air-to-ground radio chatter. As a test pilot, Slayton flew some of the most advanced military aircraft in the United States’ inventory – the F-101 Voodoo, F-102 Delta Dagger and F-106 Delta Dart – and in January 1959 he was summoned to Washington, DC, for a classified briefing on something called ‘Project Mercury’.
For the next few weeks, he and more than a dozen other top-notch pilots were tested at Dr Randy Lovelace’s aerospace medicine clinic in New Mexico. Throats were scraped, stool and semen samples extracted, electricity zapped into hands and steel eels inserted into rectums. More tests at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio followed – including cold water pumped into his ears, hours spent in darkened and soundproofed isolation chambers and endless runs on treadmills until his heart rate hit 180 beats per minute – to separate the wheat from the chaff and select America’s first team of NASA astronauts.
Many others who underwent these uncomfortable and invasive tests perceived them as a waste of time. “I’d flown combat missions and done operational test flying for 17 years by that point,” Slayton wrote. “The fact that I’d survived should have told them everything they needed to know about stress!” Selected in April 1959, Slayton went from being a member of an elite flying fraternity to one of America’s seven best test pilots…in fact, the best test pilots in the world, with experience and skills that far outdid any of the Soviet cosmonauts at the time. Yet the legacy of these seven men extended way beyond their flying and technical qualities. Many astronauts who followed in their footsteps would be cut from the same cloth, but the trials and tribulations of the Mercury Seven – and few had more challenging trials than Deke Slayton – set them apart. They were, after all, the first. These seven men would perform remarkably in support of America’s early human space programme and Deke Slayton, in particular, would play a tremendously important role in shaping the careers of the men and women who would follow.
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 email@example.com.Missions » Apollo »