Thursday, September 22, 2016


Deke! U.S. Manned Space Flight from Mercury to the Shuttle
© 1994 Deke Slayton and Michael Cassutt
352 pages

Don Slayton knew he wanted to fly as a kid, but he never imagined going as high as the moon  His story is singular; chosen as one of America's first astronauts, he was grounded for medical reasons shortly into the Mercury-Gemini programs. Remaining at NASA in hopes of one day restoring his active-duty status, he was charged first with being head of the Astronaut Office, and later still director of Flight Crew Operations. His memoir of the Apollo program thus covers far more ground than one-flight wonders like Scott Carpenter or John Glenn*;  it also provides extensive information about the technical planning of the Apollo missions, Skylab, and the shuttle program.

 Just as the lunar missions were concluding, Slayton's own mission to return to active service had a happy result: he flew on the last Saturn rocket in the Apollo-Soyuz project. There, he fulfilled a hopeful wish expressed to Alexei Leonov many years prior, that one day they might share a toast in space.  (The material in the "Vodka" bottles was just soup, but it's the thought that counts.) Slayton left NASA as the space shuttle became its focus,  in part exhausted after now decades of a grueling workload, and in part because Reagan's new NASA chief was a "horse's ass".  (Slayton helped inaugurate the shuttle, being head of the Approach and Landing Tests division during its development.)   Slayton wasn't grounded after NASA: he took up a hobby of racing planes, and became a leading administrator in a private space venture, developing rockets for commercial liftng. Slayton fell prey to cancer before the book's publication, but worked on it with his co-author for several years prior to his death.  Alan Shephard's 'co-authored' book with Slayton, Moon Shot, was also published just after Slayton's death, and I suspect it drew on some of the same interviews. The stories Slayton tells about his time in Russia are identical in both books, right down to the astronauts' discovery that their rooms were bugged, and their mischievious decision to put Russian ears to good advaantage. (They would comment on how sad it was they lacked something, like a pool table, only to have one arrive days later..)

Slayton's narration is professional with a hint of irreverence, like the time he hung out ofa helicopter by a rope to collect a goat he'd shot from the air. Tthe men who answered to Slayton's strigent safety procedures at the Cape would never believe his behavior on his own time.   He goes into enormous detail on matters like how he created the mission schedule, but at moments of high emotion he isn't communicative. He often speaks of his close friendship with fellow Mercury astronaut Gus Grissom, but when Grissom perishes in a fire (along with Ed White and Roger Chaffey), he can only terseley say that it was the worst day ever.  Cassutt or Slayton supplement the text with the recollections of Slayton's family or other astronauts, including his son Kent.  These add a human touch and some humor of their own. (Once, Slayton and his son were enjoying a silent game of catch. After being admonished by his wife to talk to his son and bestow some fatherly advice, Slayton pondered and then informed his son to always take a nap and use the head when he had the opportunity. Kent recalls it as one of the funniest moments of his childhood.)  Overall, the memoir delivers a big picture view of the early decades of NASA, from a man who was there at the very beginning.

The Original Capcom


  • Moon Shot, Alan Shephard and Deke Slayton (forward by Neil Armstrong)
  • A Man on the Moon, Neil Chaikan. Hands down the best Apollo history. 

* Sure, Glenn flew twice, but he wasn't exactly an astronaut the second time.

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