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Astronaut's Inspiration Found Down on the Farm

Deke Slayton


After attending Leon Primary School and graduating with honors from Sparta High School in 1942, Slayton enlisted in the service on his 18th birthday.  He became an aviation cadet and won his wings in 1943, receiving instruction in Vernon and Waco, Texas.

Probably no Sparta resident has spent more time off the ground than former astronaut Donald K. "Deke" Slayton.  
 
 Slayton, who was born in Sparta in 1924, is best remembered by city residents as a docking module pilot in the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz space link-up.  In the next breath, most Spartans also would mention Slayton's selection as one of the seven original Project Mercury astronauts.
 
 However, Slayton spent his formative years as a pilot.  And the inspiration for flying came to him as a farm boy in the Monroe County township of Leon.
      Slayton once told newspaper correspondent Nora Magelee that he became interested in aviation while down on the farm.  "I guess it was when I was pitching hay on the farm when I was in high school as I watched planes from Volk Field and Camp McCoy fly overhead," he said.  "I was wishing I was up there rather than down here, pitching hay, and knowing there must be an easier way to make a living."

      During World War II, Slayton piloted a B-25 in the 340th Bombardment Group.  He flew 56 combat missions over Europe before returning to the United States in mid-1944.  Then he served as B-25 instructor pilot in Columbia, South Carolina, until April 1945, when he joined the 319th Bombardment Group in Okinawa.
      Flying over the Pacific, Slayton participated in seven more combat missions in the Japanese Theatre.  Once the war ended, ha again became a B-25 instructor pilot.

In January 1947, Slayton enrolled in the University of Minnesota.  He maintained membership in the Minnesota Air National Guard and received a degree in aeronautical engineering in 1949.
      Following his graduation, he worked in Seattle as an aeronautical engineer for Boeing Aircraft.  He was recalled to active duty in early 1951 and was assigned to Minneapolis as maintenance flight test officer of an F-51 squadron.
      for a time, he later was a technical inspector at the 12th Air Force Headquarters and spent 18months as a fighter pilot and maintenance officer with the 36th Fighter-type aircraft and some foreign fighters as an experimental test pilot.
      Before being named as one of the project Mercury astronauts in 1959, Slayton was Chief of Fighter Test Section A at Edwards Air force Base.  He had logged 3,600 flying hours, 2,200 in jets, prior to his appointment by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
      Poised to follow fellow astronaut John Glenn into outer space, Slayton had to wait 16 years for his chance.  He was scrubbed from Project Mercury in the mid-1960's after a slight heart murmur was detected after a rigorous training exercise.
      According to Magelee, Slayton was outspoken in his "disappointment over the loss of his chance to fly in space..."  Grounded, he became director of flight crew operations and selected astronauts for subsequent space flights.
      Slayton finally got his chance to travel in space on the 1975 Apollo-Soyuz mission.  The American-Russian space rendezvous was intended, Slayton said to develop a procedure for rescuing disabled space ships.
      "Probably more important than the rescue mission is that this is the first time that I know of where the two nations are joining efforts in a constructive program, and generating a dialogue for the betterment of the world," he said before the mission.
      On July 15, 1975, Slayton along with Brig. Gen. Thomas P. Stafford and Vance D. Brand were launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida, in an Apollo spacecraft.  A Soviet Soyuz spacecraft carrying Cosmonauts Alexi Leonov and Valeri Kubasov was launched the same day from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in central Russia.
      the two vehicles completed their cosmic link-up two days later on July 17, 1975.  the link-up two days later on July 17, 1975.  the link-up was commemorated by a pair of U.S. stamps issued that year.
      After the mission, Slayton remained with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration until his recent retirement.  he accepted an executive position with a satellite company and was living in Houston, Texas, during the City's Centennial.
      According to Magelee research, Slayton excelled in track as a Sparta High School athlete.  He played on the Future Farmers of America basketball team in high school, and he showed Oxford sheep one year at the state fair in Milwaukee.
      Magelee wrote that Slayton's schoolmates "described him as a reserved youth, who caused little attention worked hard, never got in scrapes or did anything spectacular."
      Slayton married Marjorie Lunney of Los Angeles, a civilian secretary to an Air Force officer.  they were married in two ceremonies held in Wiesbaden, West Germany.  One was held to fulfill requirements for the German government, and the other was held in a chapel on a military base.  they had one son named Kent.
      Slayton was known as Don during his Sparta days.  He acquired the nickname "Deke" as a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in California.  To differentiate then- Capt. Slayton from another test pilot, Capt. Don Sorlie, Slayton used his nickname "Deke".