Slayton was born on March 1, 1924, on a farm near Sparta, Wisconsin, to parents Charles Sherman Slayton (1887–1972) and Victoria Adelia Slayton (née Larson; 1895–1970). He was of English and Norwegian descent. In 1929, a childhood farm equipment accident left him with a severed left ring finger. He attended elementary school in Leon, Wisconsin, and graduated from Sparta High School in 1942.
He entered the United States Army Air Forces as a cadet in 1942, training as a B-25 bomber pilot and received his wings in April 1943 (Class 43E) after completing flight training at Vernon and Waco, Texas. He flew 56 combat missions with the 340th Bombardment Group over Europe during World War II and later flew seven combat missions over Japan in a Douglas A-26 Invader as part of the 319th Bombardment Group. In the meantime, he returned to the United States in mid-1944 as a B-25 instructor pilot at Columbia, South Carolina, and later served with a unit responsible for checking pilot proficiency on the A-26 light bomber. Slayton served again as a B-25 instructor for one year following the end of the war.
After the war, Slayton graduated with a Bachelor of Science degree in Aeronautical Engineering from the University of Minnesota, in 1949. Following graduation, he worked for two years as an engineer with the Boeing Aircraft Corporation at Seattle, Washington before being recalled to active duty in 1951 with the Minnesota Air National Guard.
Upon reporting for duty, Slayton was a maintenance flight test officer of an F-51 squadron located in Minneapolis, then served eighteen months as a technical inspector at Headquarters Twelfth Air Force in Wiesbaden Army Airfield, West Germany, and a tour as fighter pilot and maintenance officer with the 36th Fighter Day Wing at Bitburg Air Base, West Germany. He graduated from the Squadron Officer School at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama in 1952, at that time an arm of Air Command and Staff College.
Returning to the United States in June 1955, Slayton attended and graduated from U.S. Air Force Test Pilot School (Class 55C) to become a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in California. He tested supersonic Air Force fighters, including the F-101, F-102, F-105, and F-106, and was responsible for determining stall-spin characteristics for the large F-105, which became the principal fighter bomber used by the Air Force over North Vietnam.
In his Air Force career, he logged 7,164 hours flying time including more than 5,100 hours in jet aircraft.
In 1959, Slayton was one of 110 military test pilots selected by their commanding officers as candidates for the newly formed National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Project Mercury, the first U.S. manned space flight program. Following a gruelling series of physical and psychological tests, NASA selected Slayton to be one of the original group of seven Mercury astronauts.
During the summer of 1961, Slayton was diagnosed with an erratic heart rate (idiopathic atrial fibrillation). Despite his best efforts to overcome this condition, including exercise and lifestyle changes, none of it had any effect.
Slayton was scheduled to fly in May 1962 on the program's second orbital flight (Mercury-Atlas 7), which he would have named Delta 7 (after the fourth letter in the Greek alphabet since this was the fourth manned Mercury flight, and "7" designating the seven astronauts), but because of uncertainty over his heart condition, the flight was given to Scott Carpenter instead and Slayton was grounded from flights completely the following September. He ended up as the only one of the Mercury Seven to not fly a Mercury mission.
When NASA grounded Slayton, the Air Force followed suit. From September 1, 1962 until November 1963, he obtained the unofficial title of "chief astronaut" when he was assigned as Coordinator of Astronaut Activities, a position later re-designated as Chief of the Astronaut Office. Despite forfeiting a pension that he would have earned following twenty combined years of active duty, Air Guard and Reserve service in 1964, Slayton resigned his Air Force commission in 1963 and continued to work for NASA in a civilian executive capacity, first as Assistant Director of Flight Crew Operations until 1966, and then as Director of Flight Crew Operations. As Director, he oversaw the activities of the astronaut office (managed by Chief of the Astronaut Office Alan Shepard, also grounded due to Ménière's disease), the aircraft operations office, the flight crew integration division, the crew training and simulation division, and the crew procedures division. He had the decisive role in choosing the crews for the Gemini and Apollo programs, including the decision of who would be the first person on the Moon.
In 1972, Slayton was awarded the Society of Experimental Test Pilots James H. Doolittle Award.
While grounded, Slayton took several measures to attempt to be restored to flight status, including a daily exercise program, quitting cigarette smoking and coffee, and drastically reducing consumption of alcoholic beverages. He also took massive doses of vitamins, and for a time took daily doses of quinidine, a crystalline alkaloid.
In July 1970, the fibrillation ceased, and a comprehensive review of his medical status by NASA's director of life sciences and the Federal Aviation Agency resulted in the full restoration of his flight status in March 1972. Slayton celebrated with an hour of aerobatic maneuvers in a NASA T-38 jet trainer.
After he was restored to flight status, Slayton was selected in February 1973 as docking module pilot for the Apollo–Soyuz Test Project, a docking between an American Apollo spacecraft and a Soviet Soyuz spacecraft. The American crew immediately began an intensive two-year training program, which included learning the Russian language and making frequent trips to the USSR, where astronauts trained for weeks at star City, the cosmonaut training center near Moscow. Slayton resigned as Director of Flight Crew Operations in February 1974.
On July 17, 1975, the two craft joined up in orbit, and astronauts Slayton, Thomas P. Stafford and Vance D. Brand conducted crew transfers with cosmonauts Alexey Leonov and Valeri Kubasov. At the end of the flight, an erroneous switch setting led to noxious nitrogen tetroxide fumes from the command module's RCS thrusters being sucked into the cabin during landing, and the crew was hospitalized as a precaution in Honolulu, Hawaii, for two weeks. During hospitalization, a lesion was discovered on Slayton's lung and removed. It was determined to be benign, but he would have almost certainly been grounded from ASTP if this had been discovered before the flight.
During his first and only spaceflight, he spent 217 hours in space.
After the Apollo–Soyuz flight, he became head of the Approach and Landing Tests (ALT) of NASA's Space Shuttle.
Following the ALT program, Slayton served as Manager for Orbital Flight Test, directing orbital flight mission preparations and conducting mission operations. He was responsible for OFT operations scheduling, mission configuration control, preflight stack configuration control, as well as conducting planning reviews, mission readiness reviews, and postflight mission evaluations. He was also responsible for the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft program.
Although Slayton expressed his hope of flying on a Shuttle mission, new NASA management did not favor him, making it clear that they considered him part of the past and that they planned to recruit a new young group of astronauts for the Shuttle era.
Slayton retired from NASA in 1980, but retained unofficial ties as a consultant until 1982. With 23 years of service, he set a record still unbroken as of 2017 for the longest-serving astronaut in history, despite only flying in one mission and being grounded from flights for years. After retirement, he served as president of Space Services Inc., a Houston-based company earlier founded to develop rockets for small commercial payloads. He served as mission director for a rocket called the Conestoga, which was successfully launched on September 9, 1982, and was the world's first privately funded rocket to reach space. Slayton also became interested in aviation racing. In addition to serving as a consultant to some aerospace corporations, he was President of International Formula One Pylon Air Racing and Director of Columbia Astronautics. He also served on the Department of Transportation's Commercial Space Advisory Committee.
Slayton penned an autobiography with space historian Michael Cassutt entitled Deke!: U.S. Manned Space from Mercury to the Shuttle. As well as Slayton's own astronaut experiences, the book describes how he made crew choice selections, including choosing the first person to walk on the Moon. Numerous astronauts have noted that only when reading this book did they learn why they had been selected for certain flights decades earlier.
Slayton's name also appears with three other co-authors, including fellow astronaut Alan Shepard, on the book Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America's Race to the Moon, published in 1994. The book was also made into a documentary film of the same name. Slayton died before either Moon Shot project was finished or released, and the book did not receive any input from him. However, the film was narrated from Slayton's point of view (voiced by Barry Corbin) and includes a brief tribute to him at the end.
Slayton was a close friend of fellow astronaut Gus Grissom. He married Marjorie "Marge" Lunney (1921–1989) in May 1955, and they had one son, Kent Sherman, born April 8, 1957. They eventually divorced, and Slayton later married Bobbie Belle Jones (1945–2010) in 1983. They remained married until his death. His hobbies were hunting, fishing, shooting, and airplane racing.
Shortly after he moved to League City, Texas, in 1992, Slayton was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. He died from the illness, at the age of 69, on June 13, 1993. He was cremated and his ashes scattered over his family farm in Wisconsin.
Slayton was a member of numerous organizations. He was a fellow of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots and the American Astronautical Society; associate fellow of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics; member of the Experimental Aircraft Association, the Space Pioneers, and the Confederate Air Force; life member of the Order of Daedalians, the National Rifle Association of America, the Veterans of Foreign Wars, and the Fraternal Order of Eagles; Honorary member of the American Fighter Aces Association, the National WWII Glider Pilots Association and the Association of Space Explorers.
Military and NASA decorations and medals:
Slayton's other awards include:
The Collier Trophy; the SETP Iven C. Kincheloe Award; the Gen. Billy Mitchell Award; the John J. Montgomery Award (1963); the SETP James H. Doolittle Award (1972); the National Institute of Social Sciences Gold Medal (1975); the Zeta Beta Tau’s Richard Gottheil Medal (1975); the Wright Brothers International Manned Space Flight Award (1975); the Veterans of Foreign Wars National Space Award (1976); the American Heart Association’s Heart of the Year Award (1976); the FAI Yuri Gagarin Gold Medal (1976); 3the District 35-R Lions International American of the Year Award (1976); the AIAA Special Presidential Citation (1977); the University of Minnesota’s Outstanding Achievement Award (1977); the Houston Area Federal Business Association’s Civil Servant of the Year Award (1977); the AAS Flight Achievement Award for 1976 (1977); the AIAA Haley Astronautics Award for 1978; Honorary D.Sc. from Carthage College, Carthage, Illinois, in 1961; Honorary Doctorate in Engineering from Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Michigan, in 1965.
With the other Mercury astronauts, Slayton was awarded the Collier Trophy in 1962 "for pioneering manned space flight in the United States".
Deke Slayton was inducted into the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame on May 11, 1990.
Slayton was inducted into the International Space Hall of Fame in 1990.
Slayton was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1996.
The Texas Oncology-Deke Slayton Cancer Center (located on Medical Center Blvd. in Webster, Texas) was named in his honor in 2000.
The main stretch of road in League City, Texas, FM 518, was renamed Deke Slayton Highway.
The Deke Slayton Memorial Space & Bicycle Museum in Sparta, Wisconsin, was named in his honor. The Slayton biographical exhibit includes his Mercury space suit, his Ambassador of Exploration Award, which showcases a lunar sample, and more. In nearby La Crosse, Wisconsin, an annual summer aircraft air show, the Deke Slayton Airfest, has been held in his honor, featuring modern and vintage military and civilian aircraft, along with NASA speakers.
The Cygnus CRS Orb-4 Orbital ATK space vehicle, launched to the International Space Station on December 6, 2015, was named S.S. Deke Slayton II in his honor.In the 1983 film The Right Stuff Slayton was played by Scott Paulin.In the 1995 film Apollo 13 he was played by Chris Ellis.In the 1996 TV movie Apollo 11 he was played by Jack Conley.In the 1998 TV miniseries From the Earth to the Moon he was played by Nick Searcy.In the 2009 TV movie Moonshot he was played by Nigel Whitmey.In the 2015 TV series The Astronaut Wives Club he was played by Kenneth Mitchell.In the 2016 film Hidden Figures he was played by Evan Holtzman.
Books authoredSlayton, Donald K.; Cassutt, Michael (1994). Deke!: U.S. Manned Space: From Mercury to the Shuttle (1st ed.). New York: Forge. ISBN 0-312-85503-6. LCCN 94002463. OCLC 29845663. ——; Cassutt, Michael (1995) [Originally copyrighted 1994]. Deke!. New York: Forge. ISBN 0-312-85918-X. LCCN 94002463. OCLC 42051303. ——; Shepard, Alan B.; Barbree, Jay; Benedict, Howard (1994). Moon Shot: The Inside Story of America’s Race to the Moon. Introduction by Neil Armstrong (1st ed.). Atlanta: Turner Publishing Company. ISBN 1-878685-54-6. LCCN 94003027. OCLC 29846731. Author in name only.——; Carpenter, M. Scott; Cooper, L. Gordon, Jr.; Glenn, John H., Jr.; Grissom, Virgil I.; Schirra, Walter M., Jr.; Shepard, Alan B., Jr. (2010) [Originally published 1962]. We Seven: By the Astronauts Themselves. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. ISBN 978-1-4391-8103-4. LCCN 62019074. OCLC 429024791.