Book Review: Deke!

Deke! U.S. Manned Space: From Mercury to the Shuttle
by Donald K. “Deke” Slayton with Michael Cassut
New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 1994.

“America’s Chief Astronaut Speaks Out at Last!” The publisher isn’t exaggerating with that tagline. This autobiography reads like it came straight from Deke Slayton’s mouth, complete with copious usage of his favorite expletive “goddamned.” I’m sure some of it has been smoothed over by the cowriter, but it still reads like practically a transcript of the taped conversations. The language is short and punchy, just like the way Deke spoke. It’s very jarring at first to hear him speak of his childhood like this, but it grows on you and fits in better when the book moves onto his adult life and career. The writing style gives the reader a very real sense of Deke’s no-nonsense personality.

The early history of the American space program has been covered thoroughly in many other works, so there really isn’t that much unique material in this book. Many events are rushed through in a few paragraphs, and even Deke's sole spaceflight on the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project is covered in very sparing detail. Deke was already starting to feel the effects of his brain tumor when he started the book, and died only two years later. Evidently, he was scrambling to to record his thoughts on each event while his mental faculties were still sharp, focusing on breadth of coverage rather than depth. Even then, there are still gaps in the narrative, some of which have been filled in with reminiscences from friends and family.

Insider’s Perspective

But what makes up for it is the insider’s perspective on events, delivered straight. What was it like to have the Russians constantly one-upping you at the start of the Space Race? Actually, they heard plenty of rumors about each Russian space shot, and knew to be on the lookout for something big even though they had no details about what was going to take place. How did the various program decisions evolve? This has been documented in other places, but Deke's firsthand account makes things concrete. What did he think about the scientific experiments? Oh, he thought that most of them were nonsense and just created opportunities to fall behind schedule.

Since he drew up the crew assignments for missions, Deke’s explanation of his reasoning made perhaps the biggest splash when the book was published. He does not shy away from revealing which pilots he thought were “weaker” than others. For example, Don Eisele and Roger Chaffee were initially assigned to Apollo 1 because Deke felt one good commander (Gus Grissom) could carry the weight for a mission that did not have much complexity. He also explains why he liked Wally Schirra, who raced cars and always did what he signed up to do, but didn’t like Gordo Cooper, who raced cars and didn’t live up to Deke’s expectations.

Deke seemed to evaluate everyone by his piloting ability, and he always seemed to feel some resentment towards the scientific community. He was unwilling to give priority in crew assignments to scientist-astronauts, and when he has a nice word to say about one of them, it's invariably due to surpassing Deke’s expectations in flight training. He's even more blunt when he discusses the death of Elliott See and Charlie Bassett in a plane crash. According to Deke, Elliott See "flew too slow," in an "old-womanish" manner, and "wasn't even in the best physical shape." Deke had first-hand experience flying with all of the astronauts, since his heart condition precluded him from piloting a jet by himself, and he "didn't need a board to tell me that" the accident was caused by pilot error. In fact, Deke blames himself for being so soft-hearted and giving Elliott See a mission, despite his misgivings about his abilities.

Deke was also involved with much of the later astronaut selection, and he clearly disliked the political pressures that were brought to bear. The woman-in-space program didn’t really seem to have made much of an impression on him. The push to get a black man into the astronaut corps occupies more of his attention, but Deke is very adamantly opposed to taking affirmative action to achieve this. In Deke's assessment, Ed Dwight was clearly disqualified by being primarily a multiengine pilot, lacking experience, and not being particularly enthusiastic about being an astronaut. (Ed Dwight left the military soon afterwards and later became a sculptor.)

Deke is just as direct when it comes to assessing later space projects. The delta wing on the space shuttle was ridiculous, he thought, especially since the Air Force ended up selecting Easter Island as an abort landing site for polar launches from Vandenberg. He knew what failed on Challenger, he says, as soon as he found out the weather conditions at the Cape. He points out that there is always some risk in spaceflight, and that some astronauts would certainly have died if Apollo had continued. But he is not happy that they exceeded the original launch parameters for the shuttle. Most of the NASA administrators were OK, he says, but Reagan’s appointee James Biggs “was a horse’s ass … a political appointee in the worst sense of the word … [who] who was really there for ideological reasons, to both commercialize NASA and militarize it.”

Mind you, Deke is not exactly a flaming liberal. My impression from this book is that he was largely apolitical, with perhaps some leanings towards being a conservative Democrat, since NASA's best years came under Kennedy and Johnson. The only thing that Deke really says about Rusty Schweickart, for example, is that he was the most liberal astronaut, and that his wife was so radical that it caused Rusty some issues with some of the other astronauts. Deke does seem to have had somewhat of a Barry Goldwater-style leftward evolution in his later years, under the influence of his second wife Bobbie. For example, Deke first picked up a rifle at the age of six, and hunting is mentioned many times in the book — it seems he'd go hunting whenever he had a spare moment. But his son speculates that he just couldn't bear to shoot another living creature after his wife bought a dog as a pet.

There are other signs of the changing times. When Curtis LeMay grounded him for his heart fibrillations, the Deke Slayton of the 1960s retired from the Air Force after 19 years of service, forfeiting his chance at the 20-year military pension. But the Deke Slayton of the 1980s discovered that people were quitting NASA and receiving a pension while also getting paid another salary as a “retired annuitant.” When he found out that the likes of Chris Kraft, Max Faget, and Bob Thompson were all doing this, he joined in. After retirement, he tried his hand at commercial space launchers, but grew frustrated by the lack of vision in private industry. Venture capitalists would only give a few million dollars and wanted control of your company, while larger corporations were happy with status-quo contracts and weren’t willing to spend their own money on speculative development. (Not much has changed since then. SpaceX succeeded not with VC money, but by having a dot-com billionaire spend down practically his entire personal fortune, to the point where he was borrowing money from friends for living expenses.)

Deke does not engage in much introspection in the book. It’s all very factual, and when Deke does deliver his opinion, it’s wham bam, here’s what I think. His son Kent recalls that “Dad wasn’t much of a philosopher.” There is also very little discussion of his family or his personal life. His divorce and remarriage both take place all of a sudden and are dispensed with in a couple of paragraphs. But not all the astronauts were this way. Deke points out, for example, that both Wally Schirra and Frank Borman felt burned out by the program and were willing to quit before getting a chance to land on the moon. (It’s not accidental that Schirra and Borman were among the few Apollo-era astronauts to remain married, while so many other astronauts divorced years or even decades after their flights. If you're willing to give up a shot at the moon for the sake of your family, then that's a powerful sign of commitment.)


For such a direct and uncomplicated book, this autobiography is surprisingly thought-provoking. Deke has had quite a career, and is a straight shooter who's unwilling to tolerate mediocrity. Even when you don’t agree with all of his choices, you have a hard time blaming him because he is not playing any games. When Deke talks about how quickly decisions were made during the heyday of Gemini, and contrasts it with what was possible in the 1980s and 1990s, you get a real sense of the bureaucratization that afflicted a mature NASA.

Michael Cassut made a risky decision to leave Deke’s words largely unpolished and intact. It works. Deke’s voice really comes through in the book, and we appreciate his accomplishments all the more for it.