Notable Norwegians

Donald “Deke” Slayton

Donald “Deke” Slayton

Photo: Public domain / NASA Human Space Flight Gallery
Astronaut Donald K. “Deke” Slayton and cosmonaut Alexey A. Leonov in the Soyuz Orbital Module during the Apollo–Soyuz Test Project in July 1975.

with David Moe

Donald “Deke” Slayton was born March 1, 1924, on a farm near Sparta, Wis. As a child, he worked on the farm raising sheep and cows, and in high school was active in the Future Farmers of America.

The attack on Pearl Harbor occurred during Slayton’s senior year of high school. After graduation from Sparta High School, he entered the Air Force as an aviation cadet and received his wings in April 1943 after completion of flight school in Texas. During WWII, he was a B-25 pilot with the 340th Bombardment Group, flying 56 combat missions in Europe.

He returned to the United States in 1944 as a B-25 instructor pilot in Columbia, S.C., and later served with a unit responsible for checking pilot proficiency in the A-26.  In April 1945, he was sent to Okinawa with the 319th Bombardment Group and flew seven combat missions over Japan.

After the war, he continued to serve as a B-25 instructor for a year and then left the Air Force to enter the University of Minnesota, where he earned his bachelor of science degree in Aeronautical Engineering in 1949. He went to work for the Boeing Aircraft Corporation in Seattle and was recalled to active duty with the  Minnesota National Guard in 1951. Slayton served as a fighter pilot and maintenance officer with the 36th Fighter Day Wing in Bitburg, Germany, returning to the United States in 1955, when he attended the USAF Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California. He served as a test pilot from January 1956 to April 1959.

In April 1959, Slayton was named as one of the Mercury astronauts but was grounded due to a heart condition discovered in August 1959. He was later restored to full flight status and made his first space flight as Apollo docking module pilot, July 15-24, 1975, the first historical joint space flight between American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts. The event was a successful testing of a universal docking system and paved the way for future joint ventures in space.

Slayton retired from NASA in 1982. He became president of Space Services Inc. of Houston, a company he founded to develop rockets for small commercial payloads. With space historian Michael Cassutt, Slayton wrote an autobiography entitled Deke!: U.S. Manned Space from Mercury to the Shuttle.

He died on June 13, 1993, from a malignant brain tumor and was survived by his wife, Bobbie, and son, Kent. He was cremated, and his ashes were scattered over his family farm in Wisconsin.

David Moe graduated from the University of Minnesota, Morris, and received his M.A. degree from San Francisco State University. He spent four years in the U.S. Navy and 32 years in the insurance business. He and his wife, Thordis, have two daughters and four grandchildren. They live in Sun City, Calif.

This article originally appeared in the March 8, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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