Story: Donald K. “Deke” Slayton, as you may recall, was the one member of the original Mercury seven who was shackled to the Earth by a recurring heart condition. Admirably, he made the best of his condition and eventually became the first director of NASA’s Astronaut Office, selecting and coordinating primary and backup crews for the Gemini and Apollo programs, and all the while waiting patiently for a flight of his own, something which did not happen until he was declared fit to pilot the final flight in the Apollo program, the joint American/Soviet Apollo-Soyuz mission in 1975. This is his story, told from his own no-nonsense perspective (with the posthumous blanks filled in by co-writer Michael Cassutt; Slayton died before the book was published).
Review: If anything, Deke Slayton’s autobiography is the Apollo astronaut bio which features the least information on the Apollo program.
Deke’s unapologetic honesty is a refreshingly brash aspect of the book. He worked hard to make sure all of his pilots got a fair shot at a mission, but he makes no bones about which pilots were a pain in the ass, either. In one fascinating section, he mentions that a handful of pilots was foisted upon him by the Air Force after the abandonment of a manned military observation satellite project which would have used technology from the Gemini era; one of those pilots turns out to be Bob Crippen, later co-pilot of the first shuttle flight and NASA director during the Challenger era who publicly came under fire.
Of the many astronaut biographies and autobiographies I’ve read, Deke! is among the most personal, as Slayton takes time out from his reminiscences of the space program to detail what was going on in his personal life – the end of his first marriage, the beginning of his second, his relationship with his son. There is also a great deal of information about his test pilot days, an aspect of the Apollo astronauts’ training which is often glossed over in a cursory manner in other books. Many guests, including Donald Slayton Jr., make their thoughts heard in “other voices” sidebars throughout the book (though the placement and relevance of these sidebars are sometimes mysterious). You’ll find criticisms of the space program, but precious few criticisms of Deke Slayton.
Toward the very end of the book, Slayton makes an unemotional admission that he knows he is dying of cancer. His take on this inevitable event is admirable and saddening at the same time – he felt he had his inning and had lived an extraordinary life. And by the time you hit the last page, you’ll probably agree. Highly recommended.
Author: Donald K. “Deke” Slayton, Michael Cassutt
Pages: 354 pages