On the morning of the launch that sent the first men to the moon, Deke Slayton knocked on the doors of Neil Armstrong, Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin and Michael Collins at quarter-past 4 a.m.
“It’s a beautiful day. You’re GO,” said Slayton, NASA’s director of flight crew operations.
Slayton, a self-described “stick and rudder jockey” from outside Sparta, was one of the Mercury 7, NASA’s first group of astronauts to make the cut. In fact, Slayton had been in line to be the fourth American in space until a slight heart condition grounded him before his first flight.
Now, Slayton drafted the roster for who would fly each mission. He picked Armstrong to command Apollo 11, Aldrin to pilot the lunar module and Collins to fly the command module. He unruffled feathers when astronauts came to him over mission assignments, including who would take the first step on the moon. And he was the liaison between the astronauts and the top brass who were deciding whether Apollo 11 should launch as scheduled.
After the Apollo 11 crew had their pre-flight medicals, Slayton joined them for the traditional pre-launch breakfast of steak and eggs. He rode with them for part of the eight miles to the launch pad before getting off at the control center.
“I’ve been to that pad some 20 times,” he later told The New York Times in 1973. “Every time I wished I was going all the way, I really did.”
Even as he helped guide his fellow astronauts into space and then the moon, Slayton never lost the itch to travel beyond the skies himself.
After all, Slayton, who died in 1993, had been one of the chosen few at the dawn of the space age. He had a hand in every Mercury, Gemini and Apollo mission during the race to the moon.
It wasn’t until 13 years later that Slayton got the chance to fly on a mission that ended the U.S.-Soviet space race with a figurative and literal handshake.
From Donald to Deke
Donald Slayton was born March 1, 1924, and grew up on a dairy farm a mile north of Leon, in Monroe County. As the oldest son from his father’s second marriage, Slayton was expected to inherit the family farm. But when planes started gathering over Camp McCoy, the Army base nearby, ahead of the United States’ entry into World War II, Slayton swapped his ag classes for physics, chemistry and math.
Slayton joined the Army Air Corps after graduating high school and flew 56 combat missions in Europe and seven over Japan. After the war, Slayton got a degree in aeronautical engineering and became a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base.
It was at Edwards that Slayton picked up his nickname Deke — short for DK — to avoid confusion with another pilot named Don.
While Slayton tested planes, the Soviet Union propelled Sputnik, the first artificial satellite, into orbit in 1957. That kicked off the space race.
In January 1959, Slayton was summoned to Washington, D.C., for a classified briefing. He had been winnowed from a pool of 110 military test pilots that met NASA’s spaceflight qualifications. After a second briefing and a barrage of medical and psychological tests, Slayton became one of the Mercury 7.
When Mercury 7 member Alan Shepard skimmed the rim of outer space aboard the Freedom 7 on May 5, 1961, he was not the first earthling in space. Shepard had made the trip behind a pack of Soviet test dogs, a NASA chimpanzee named Ham and Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin.
But his 15-minute flight was enough to inspire a generation of children to dream of space exploration, including eight-year-old Mark Lee from rural Wisconsin.
The Mercury 7 had that effect.
“If an astronaut could come from Sparta, Wisconsin, why not Viroqua?” said Lee, who watched the launch on a black-and-white TV with a coat hanger for an antenna in a one-room schoolhouse. Lee went on to become a NASA astronaut and flew four space flights.
Not long after Shepard landed from his suborbital flight and received congratulations from President Kennedy did the president announce a more ambitious goal: Put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
While America’s entry in the space race cranked into gear, Slayton’s chances of making a flight slowly sank.
Two years before Shepard’s flight, doctors noticed an irregular heartbeat during one of Slayton’s training sessions in the centrifuge, a spinning machine that allows test pilots to experience forces several times that of gravity. Slayton was a pro at the centrifuge, which mimicked the forces of being propelled by an accelerating rocket.
When the doctors realized Slayton had atrial fibrillation, a flutter in his heartbeat that didn’t affect his physical performance, his condition made some people in Washington anxious, Slayton recounted in his book, “Deke!,” written with Michael Cassutt.
Slayton was officially pulled from the fourth manned Mercury flight and replaced by colleague Scott Carpenter.
“I know he had his heart set on this, and it is difficult to come so close and not make it,” his mother Victoria told The Associated Press in March 1962.
Slayton’s father Charles said he was relieved, but told his son, “don’t let it get you down.”
A few months later, after Slayton was barred not only from solo flights but from future two-person Gemini missions, he returned home to Wisconsin to get away and fish, the AP reported.
After Slayton’s permanent grounding, the Mercury astronauts pulled together to make Slayton chief astronaut.
“We’ve got to pull for Deke and help him,” said John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth, according to “Moon Shot,” a book by Shepard and Slayton, written with the help of two space correspondents.
“Gotta give Deke back his pride,” said Shepard, the first American in space.
Glenn delivered this message to NASA administrator James Webb, according to Neil Armstrong’s eponymous biography by Jay Barbree. “We have three recommendations for chief astronaut. Deke Slayton, Deke Slayton and Deke Slayton.”
Choosing the crew
Slayton’s first task in his new role was choosing the second group of astronauts, “probably the best all-around group ever put together,” Slayton said in his book. That group, the Gemini 9, included Neil Armstrong.
It was also Slayton’s job to put together the crews for each mission. There’s still speculation as to how he chose these teams.
“I never sorted that out,” said astronaut Charles Duke, capsule communicator during the Apollo 11 moon landing, during a NASA interview in 1999. “Even to this day, I’m not sure how the crews were selected.”
Astronaut William Anders, who snapped the iconic “earthrise” photo during Apollo 8, later said he even read “Deke!” to try to demystify the process.
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“My operating rule was to have a pool of guys trained so that anyone could handle anything, and then make selections based on that,” Slayton said. His first choice would have been Mercury astronaut and close friend Gus Grissom had Grissom not died in a fire during Apollo 1 testing.
When slotting missions, he always had a back-up team that would take part alongside the prime team on simulations and debriefs, Slayton explained in “Moon Shot.” They would become “a great snowball rolling down a mountain, gathering data all the way for their own flight,” Slayton said.
Then Slayton would assign them the third mission after the one they trained for as backup. Since Armstrong shadowed as the commander for Apollo 8, he was right in line.
In fact, it was during Apollo 8’s journey to lunar orbit that Slayton told Armstrong that Apollo 11 was his. Slayton also ran by Armstrong two names for his crew: Collins as command module pilot and Aldrin as lunar module pilot. He also offered Jim Lovell, Apollo 8 crew member and future Apollo 13 commander, as an alternative to Aldrin.
Armstrong took a day to think it over. He told Slayton on Christmas Eve that he was fine with the team as is.
The trio was announced to the world Jan. 9, 1969.
The crew was set, but there was no guarantee that Apollo 11 would be their ticket to the moon. That distinction could have gone to Apollo 10 or Apollo 12, depending on the lunar module’s performance.
First, Apollo 9 had to show the Saturn V rocket could haul all the lunar equipment into space and that the lunar module could rendezvous and dock with the command module. Apollo 10 was a dry run of everything but the landing itself.
And there was intense speculation over who would take the historic first step.
An older flight plan had called for the pilot to exit first. NASA said the matter hadn’t been decided. Aldrin began asking other astronauts for their opinion, which some viewed as lobbying.
When Slayton heard this, he told Aldrin that Armstrong had seniority, which settled the matter, according to “Shoot for the Moon.”
Slayton also gave Aldrin another reason why Armstrong should be first: Armstrong stood closer to the exit hatch, which opened inward.
“Shoot for the Moon” author James Donovan suggests it was a way to appease Aldrin. Four NASA officials, including Slayton, had already decided the privilege should go to Armstrong.
Did that make things awkward?
Collins later described their relationship as that of “amiable strangers.” The three men would never be close, but they were focused on the mission and trusted each other to get the job done.
While they sometimes trained together, Armstrong and Aldrin spent most of their time practicing in the lunar module. Collins, who would be orbiting the moon in the command module, trained alone, rehearsing scenarios including ones where he had to abort and abandon his crewmates on the moon.
It was a real possibility. Frank Borman, retired from the Astronaut Corps, even suggested to Nixon’s speechwriter that the president prepare some words in case of that outcome, according to “Shoot for the Moon.”
“Fate has ordained that the men who went to the moon to explore in peace will stay on the moon to rest in peace,” the speech began.
When it came time for a flight-readiness review that decided whether the mission would proceed, Slayton gave the top brass his opinions.
“We’re in better shape than with 9, but not so good as 10,” Slayton said, who had already consulted the crew. “I have no reservations about the crew being adequately trained.”
Asked what difference a month’s delay would make, Slayton answered, “Honest to say, I don’t think we’d be all that much better off.”
Apollo 11 launched July 16, 1969, from Kennedy Space Center in Florida without a hitch.
“Hey, Houston, Apollo 11,” Armstrong said, as they left Earth’s orbit for the moon. “That Saturn gave us a magnificent ride.”
Slayton returned to Houston to track the crew’s progress from Mission Control.
Three days later, the crew reached lunar orbit.
On July 20, 1969, the Eagle lunar module undocked from Columbia and began its lunar descent. There was a tense moment when an unfamiliar alarm sounded, indicating an information overload that could have prompted an abort. However, MIT computer scientist Margaret Hamilton’s software allowed the computer to prioritize key tasks, and Armstrong and Aldrin to continue their mission. The Eagle landed in the Sea of Tranquility with less than a minute of fuel to spare.
The first moonwalkers collected lunar samples, took photographs and video, and planted and saluted an American flag. They set up a seismometer, a solar radiation monitor, and a mirrored contraption to measure the exact distance from the Earth to the moon. Then they spent the night in the Eagle before rejoining Collins in the Columbia the next day.
“This is the original CapCom,” Slayton said, as Apollo 11 traveled homeward. “Congratulations on an outstanding job. … I look forward to seeing you when you get back here. Don’t fraternize with any of those bugs en route, except for the (USS) Hornet.”
Deke’s moon shot
Kennedy’s moon directive achieved, Slayton never lost the drive to fly. After his initial atrial fibrillation diagnosis, he gave up smoking, coffee and alcohol. His cardiac episodes continued.
Slayton began dosing himself with vitamins after he noticed a correlation between a bad cold during the Apollo 13 mission and a lack of heart arrhythmias after he upped his vitamin intake.
NASA flight surgeon Charles Berry arranged for Slayton to meet cardiologist Hal Mankin at the Mayo Clinic for tests. The all-clear from Mankin and seven other doctors, as well as NASA administrators, returned Slayton to full flight status in 1972. He would miss the tail end of the Apollo moon missions and Skylab, but he had a shot at the upcoming joint space mission with the Soviet Union.
Incidentally, NASA administrator Thomas Paine broached the idea for an international space venture with President Nixon in 1969 while en route to greet the newly returned Apollo 11 astronauts. Such a project would improve U.S.-Soviet relations, save both countries money and make international rescues possible should there be a space emergency. Docking the two countries’ spacecrafts would be the first step.
Slayton started learning Russian to increase his chances.
“I’ve been the last 11 years getting back to where I am now,” Slayton told The New York Times in January 1973, after he was selected for the Apollo-Soyuz mission.
On July 15, 1975, Slayton ate the traditional pre-launch breakfast of steak and eggs, not as a NASA director but as an astronaut about to enter space. The two spacecrafts launched on the same day.
The Soviet crew called their approach to Apollo in English. The Americans responded to Soyuz in Russian. When the two ships docked July 17, Soyuz cosmonaut Alexei Leonov said, “Soyuz and Apollo are shaking hands now.”
President Ford asked Slayton what advice “the world’s oldest space rookie” had for aspiring astronauts in a post-docking teleconference.
“Decide what you want to do,” Slayton said, “and then never give up until you’ve done it.”
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