Deke Slayton: Through Adversity to the Stars

Today I presented the “Tech Savvy / User Friendly” philosophy to a group of professionals during a breakfast networking group.

When I asked if there were any questions, someone asked if that made me “Rocket Man.” Another person suggested “Buzz” because of my hairstyle1.

After the meeting I spoke to one of the attendees who is a fan of the space program. As a young man he collected many of the toys and models for the Apollo program. By the time I was born, only Apollo 16 and Apollo 17 were left to put bootprints on the moon.

When I was a kid in school they often asked what we wanted to be when we grew up. There were a lot of doctors, police, and veterinarians; but I was always the only “astronaut” in the class.

My brother and I along with a couple of neighbor children woke up early and even got to be late to school so we could watch the first shuttle launch. All the while I was playing with my Lego Alpha-1 Rocket Base2 set I got for Christmas the year before.

And on July 8th, 2011, my wife and I were standing on Cocoa Beach at Alan Shepard park to watch the last Shuttle, Atlantis, take flight as part of STS-135.

The space program contains a great number of my personal heroes3. Men and women who pushed the boundaries of the human experience and expanded our understanding of the universe in which we live.

But when someone asked if I was “Buzz” this morning, I simply responded, “I’d rather be Deke.”

Donald “Deke” Slayton was one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts and scheduled to be the second American to fly in space, but he was grounded by NASA (and later the Air Force) when his heart was found to have an irregular rhythm.

His whole life up to that point was centered around flying and his eyes had been set on the moon. I don’t think anyone would have blamed Deke for walking away at that point.

But he didn’t.

Instead he took on the position of “Coordinator of Astronaut Activities” and was given the unofficial title of “Chief Astronaut.” Later that would become an official role.

And he didn’t accept the limitation either.

Determined to regain his flight status he took up a daily exercise routine, started taking vitamins, quit smoking and coffee drinking, and dramatically cut back his alcohol intake4. The irregularity went away in 1970 and by 1972 his flight status had been restored, though too late to take part in the now cancelled Apollo program.

But Deke did get to fly in space!

On July 15th, 1975, Deke was one of three American Astronauts to launch in an Apollo capsule and dock with a Soyuz capsule and two Russian Cosmonauts. For almost two days, the two crews performed joint experiments, exchanged gifts, and visited each others’ ships. The leftmost picture above shows Deke with Alexey Leonov, the first human to walk in space, who was celebrating his final trip in space. Deke was 51 at the time of the mission making him the oldest person to fly in space at the time. A record that wouldn’t be beaten until John Glenn flew aboard STS-95 in 1998 at the age of 77. It’s important to note that at this time, the cold war between the United States and the USSR was still fairly tense.

The Latin inscription “Ad Astra Per Aspera” (meaning “Through Adversity to the Stars”) is engraved on the memorial for the three men who died during the test launch of Apollo I.

I believe Deke Slayton lived those words. To be selected for the Mercury 7 over so many others. To become grounded yet stay with and support the program. To better himself and clear himself of the condition that held him back. To overcome every obstacle that stood in his way and take to the stars.

I may share a¬†haircut with Buzz Aldrin, but I’d rather have the heart of Deke Slayton.

  1. If anyone read that line and thought they were being disrespectful, I assure you it was said with much love and respect.
  2. *sniff* I still miss that set.
  3. Just to list a small handful: “Jerri” Cobb and the rest of the Mercury 13 women, Wally Schirra who flew in all three original programs, Yuri Gagarin, Valentina Tereshkova and Sally Ride, and Chris Hadfield. But sooooooo many more.
  4. Considering the legends of how much the Mercury 7 could (and did) drink, it still may have been a lot.

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