This Space Available
By Emily Carney
A man with a deeply-lined, William Holden-esque face who more resembled a gunslinger from classic Westerns than a nerdy engineer, astronaut Donald K. “Deke” Slayton was used to near-misses and “what-ifs.” He’d flown in combat during World War II, after all. In 1962, he’d been medically grounded due to spells of atrial fibrillation, and missed his chance to make an orbital Mercury spaceflight. Becoming the “boss of the astronauts” served as (kind of) a consolation prize, and even though he wasn’t able to fly in space, he was able to leave his fingerprints all over NASA’s Gemini and Apollo programs. But he still really wanted to fly in space.
By 1972, he was, at last, medically cleared to fly; his space debut would happen not on a one-person spacecraft, but on what would become Apollo’s swansong, 1975’s Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. On July 24, 1975, the ASTP crew – which also included mission commander Tom Stafford and command module pilot Vance Brand – were making their way back through Earth’s atmosphere, coming to what should have been an uneventful end to their successful, historic nine-day mission. But like a lot of things in Slayton’s life, nothing about ASTP’s splashdown would be “routine.”
Slayton recounted in his 1993 autobiography, written with Michael Cassutt, Deke!:
One of the important items on that checklist was to close down the RCS system once we hit forty thousand feet…either Tom didn’t call for RCS close, or he did and Vance just didn’t hear it. The small drag chute deployed with a big whap, and suddenly we had a cockpit full of yellow gas.
The yellow gas was comprised of hydrazine and nitrogen tetroxide, both highly toxic. Brand actually passed out, and Stafford retrieved emergency oxygen masks in an attempt to mitigate the increasingly chaotic situation inside the command module. By the time the crew had splashed down (also, upside-down) in the Pacific in what Slayton characterized as “a rough ride…I hated it,” the three men were in acute respiratory distress. Slayton then remarked in his typically no-BS way: “Then it was my turn to screw up. We were in the water a few minutes, still hacking, when they dropped the frogmen. One of them appeared in the window, and like a dumb s—t I gave him the thumbs-up sign. Everything’s okay. Well, of course it wasn’t. But everybody outside thought it was, so there was no special effort to get us out of the command module.”
Shortly after a post-flight press conference aboard the USS New Orleans, the three were immediately administered cortisone shots in an effort to staunch the cases of chemical pneumonia they’d acquired during the last four minutes of their mission. During the two weeks they were under observation, Slayton realized he’d not only survived Apollo’s last near-miss…but he very nearly could have missed flying on Apollo-Soyuz, period:
One interesting thing happened, though: the X-rays turned up a spot on my lung. So the first thing I did when I got back to Houston was check into the hospital for lung surgery. Fortunately, the lump turned out to be benign.
But if they’d found it before ASTP, I never would have been allowed to fly.
About a year after ASTP closed out the Apollo era with a perilous splashdown culminating in an unexpected lung surgery for Slayton, a Houston entrepreneur named David Hannah, Jr. flipped through the pages of Smithsonian magazine and came across an article written by Dr. Gerard K. O’Neill, who was just starting to achieve fame with his space settlement treatises – and had also been a finalist for 1967’s class of astronaut-scientists. In a 1983 interview with O’Neill’s non-profit organization, the Space Studies Institute, Hannah discussed what marked his entry into space entrepreneurship: “My start in the private venture was through the Smithsonian article by Dr. O’Neill in 1976. In that article, he explained how much closer we were to the utilization of space than anybody believed. I thought, ‘Well, that’s true, and I’ll see what happens.’”
In that same interview, Hannah predicted that innovations in spaceflight could be adequately funded via private enterprise; in fact, he believed that developing space technologies could be better served using this model. He emphasized, “I think the main reason that we can fund it is that we can take state-of-the-art-space technology, and utilize it much more quickly than a government or an agency, or even a large corporation can. We can make changes in design better than any one of those three; that’s what private enterprise can do best.” His remarks predated ideologies offered by contemporary commercial spaceflight entrepreneurs, such as Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, by several decades.
By this point, Slayton divided his time between working on the space shuttle’s Approach and Landing Tests and butting heads with fellow astronaut Dave Scott, who by then was the director of NASA’s Dryden (now Armstrong) facility. By the early 1980s, even after Scott had left the agency, several other factors contributed to Slayton’s increasing disillusionment with NASA. One included the fact that, in Slayton’s own words, “The agency that I found in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which seemed to exist solely for the shuttle, wasn’t much fun for me.” However, he still held onto (slim) hopes that he would perhaps fly aboard the shuttle, despite his advancing age; in 1975, he’d been the eldest astronaut to fly thus far at age 51. Despite having “dropped a few hints” to higher-ups in the hopes he’d interest them in a Slayton shuttle mission, his hints fell upon deaf ears, and he was not assigned to any future flights.
Slayton also described the Reagan-era NASA Administrator James Beggs as “a real horse’s a–,” and didn’t like Hans Mark, then-head of human spaceflight, much more than Beggs. “There we’d be in flight readiness reviews, and suddenly these two weenies would fly in from Houston to ‘take charge,’” Slayton underscored, beautifully unrestrained as always.
Here’s Slayton by the numbers at the time of his NASA retirement, which was February 27, 1982:
One of the first seven astronauts selected in 1959;
Spent 19 years in the United States Air Force;
Spent nine days, one hour, and 28 minutes in low Earth orbit;
One docking and one redocking with the Soviet Soyuz spacecraft;
Logged 7,164 hours of flying time; and
Accomplished these latter milestones even though he’d been grounded for 10 years.
Just before Slayton’s retirement, his path intersected with that of Hannah’s, who contacted him for possible consultancy services; Hannah had been connected with Slayton through Max Faget. Slayton enthused that “[t]he entrepreneurial approach appealed to me,” and signed on as a consultant to Space Services Inc. of America (SSIoA). Of Slayton, Hannah related in the aforementioned SSI interview, “He’s the best, and has been great to work with. It’s really been an inspiration to us to work with him.”
Fast forward to September 9, 1982, Matagorda Island, Texas: the rocket that Slayton had helped to design, Conestoga 1, was ready for its first launch, loaded with its payload – a very unscientific forty gallons of water. According to a Celestis Memorial Spaceflights blog, “At 10:12 am, after a flawless countdown, Conestoga 1 lifted off from its concrete pad, roaring toward the sun and reached an apogee of over 160 miles before splashing down approximately 600 miles downrange in the Gulf of Mexico. The mission achieved all of its goals and the commercial space age was born. As Gemini and Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan noted that evening on ABC News Nightline, ‘I think we’ve got a start today that is motivating the minds and the ideas of a lot of other people out there who have nothing to do with Conestoga.’”
Conestoga 1 also gained the attention of President Ronald Reagan, who wrote in a letter to Hannah, “in blazing a new trail through the skies, you have shown the potential of private enterprise to perform even the most sophisticated technical feats.” A Celestis blog post stated that by 1984, “…Reagan issued an Executive Order designating the Department of Transportation as the lead regulatory agency for commercial space transportation. In 1984, Congress enacted The Commercial Space Launch Act, which today remains the governing law enabling private space transportation.”
The world’s first private enterprise launch gained a lot of media attention, incredible since SSIoA was not a government–led operation whatsoever; according to Slayton, “[I]t was a big success, especially since we had done it with a team of about twelve people. The NASA director of commercial affairs at the time, James Rose, told me later that we had done it with one-third the people for one-fifth the cost, which was about $2 million. I don’t know if I buy that: I’d say we did it for about forty percent of the cost and personnel that a bigger organization would have used.” He added laconically, “Since [the launch] had gone okay, I was elected president of the company.”
The next step for SSIoA was to acquire paying customers to fund their future launches. Around this time, the company became interested in the idea of sending cremated human remains into space as a sort of permanent tribute for those interested. As early as May 1985, Slayton was behind the idea; in a letter to Ingeborg Ehricke, widow of rocket pioneer Krafft Ehricke, he wrote, “I was [saddened] to hear of the passing of your husband. He was one of the few genuine pioneers in the space business. [Former astronaut] Wally Schirra tells me that Mr. Ehricke wanted his ashes sent into space at an appropriate time. Since we are dealing with an organization who hopes to do that in the not too distant future, I thought I should at least make sure you were aware of that opportunity.” However, the idea of memorial spaceflights at that time was squashed by Florida regulations in how cremains could be transported, and Slayton remarked wistfully, “Anyway, eventually it all faded out. Too bad, because to this day I still get letters from people asking about that service.”
SSIoA then turned to the idea of launching GPS constellations into service, but Slayton stated, “The problem was nobody had any money.” By 1990, Slayton was the only paid employee of SSIoA, save for the company’s controller. But within a year, SSIoA’s problems paled in comparison to what was going on in Slayton’s private life. After experiencing spatial orientation issues, it was discovered that he was suffering from a malignant brain tumor. In Slayton’s words in Deke!, shortly after his diagnosis:
If there’s a message in all this, it’s that we all look up the barrel of a loaded gun regularly without adequately assessing the real potential for disaster. I don’t recommend that you stop taking risks – even the turtle cannot proceed without sticking out his neck. But recognize that the good Lord has your number, and when it comes up, be prepared. You may not get as many chances as I’ve had.
Slayton took his final flight on June 13, 1993. The story of Deke’s final space endeavor has a happy coda: in 1994, former SSIoA employees Charles M. Chafer and R. Chan Tysor founded a new company, Celestis, Inc., which specializes in making memorial spaceflights aboard commercial launch vehicles. In 1997, Celestis flew its first mission, the Founders Flight, aboard an Orbital Sciences Pegasus XL booster; since then, the company has flown 16 more memorial spaceflights. Later this summer, Celestis will fly its Enterprise Flight aboard the inaugural voyage of United Launch Alliance’s Vulcan Centaur launch vehicle. Celestis’ roots can be traced back to that time when Slayton and Hannah’s paths intersected circa 1982, and the launch of Conestoga 1 later that year.
The latter milestone marked the beginning of the ongoing era of commercial spaceflight, and it cannot be overstated – or forgotten – that it had been partly ushered in by one of NASA’s first astronauts.
If you’d like to know more about Deke Slayton’s post-NASA career, I’d recommend reading:
Some of this piece was extrapolated from Making Space For The Future: Celestis, Commercial Spaceflight, and Fostering An Off-World Economy, published on Celestis’ blog.
Featured photo credit, NASA, April 28, 1981: “After completing its first orbital mission with a landing at Edwards Air Force Base on April 14, 1981, Space Shuttle Columbia received a humorous sendoff before its ferry flight atop a modified 747 back to the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Holding the sign are, left to right: Melvin Burke, DFRC Orbital Flight Test (OFT) Program Manager; Isaac ‘Ike’ Gillam, DFRC Center Director; Fitzhugh ‘Fitz’ L. Fulton Jr., NASA DFRC 747 SCA Pilot; and Donald K. ‘Deke’ Slayton, JSC OFT Project Manager.”
Emily Carney is a writer, space enthusiast, and creator of the This Space Available space blog, published since 2010. In January 2019, Emily’s This Space Available blog was incorporated into the National Space Society’s blog. The content of Emily’s blog can be accessed via the This Space Available blog category.
Note: The views expressed in This Space Available are those of the author and should not be considered as representing the positions or views of the National Space Society.