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Deke Slayton dead at 69, was original astronaut

Donald K. "Deke" Slayton, 69, an original Mercury Seven astronaut who was forced to wait 16 years before soaring into space then took part in a historic rendezvous with a Soviet Soyuz 19 spacecraft, died of cancer Sunday at his home in League City, Texas, near Houston.

Slayton died in his sleep. His wife, Bobbie, was at his side, said Howard Benedict, executive director of the Mercury Seven Foundation in Titusville.

With Slayton's death, five of the original Mercury astronauts survive: Alan Shepard, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper and Wally Schirra. Virgil "Gus" Grissom and two other astronauts died in 1967 when a space capsule caught fire during a launch-pad test.

In 1959, Slayton was chosen by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration as one of the country's seven original astronauts from a field of 110 test pilots who applied. These astronauts became instant celebrities and personified the nation's space quest, which nearly took on the trappings of a crusade.

The seven astronauts became the subjects of Tom Wolfe's book The Right Stuff, later made into a motion picture.

On May 5, 1961, Shepard became the first American in space. On July 21, the second astronaut, Grissom soared aloft. But both were brief, suborbital flights. Then, on Feb. 20, 1962, Glenn, a former Marine Corps pilot who is now a U.S. senator, circled the Earth three times and held a world spellbound with his and his country's achievement.

Slayton was due to make the next flight, in May 1962, and become the fourth astronaut to fly through space. But suddenly it was announced that he would not fly the mission and, indeed, might never fly again. Carpenter flew in his place.

Physicians had verified the recurrence of a mild, occasional, irregular heart palpitation. The heart ailment was an idiopathic atrial fibrillation, an intermittent quivering of the heart's muscle fibers, that caused a slightly erratic heartbeat.

Slayton, an Air Force major who was a combat veteran of World War II, knew that the Air Force would not allow a pilot to fly with any heart irregularity, no matter how minor. So he resigned from the Air Force and attempted to requalify for the space program and fly as a civilian.

He continued with NASA as an assistant director, and then director, of flight crew operations. He gained such respect that he was credited with having primary influence on the choosing of subsequent space crews.

But his determination to fly never waned. He gave up coffee and cigarettes, cut back drastically

on alcohol intake and began taking vitamins regularly. A July 1970 physical found no heart fibrillation, and he was restored to his status as an astronaut.

Later that year, despite a war in Vietnam and a continuing Cold War everywhere else, the United States and the Soviet Union made the first tentative moves toward a joint space venture. In 1972, President Nixon and Soviet Prime Minister Aleksei Kosygin signed a formal Apollo-Soyuz agreement.

Slayton and two other astronauts, Thomas Stafford and Vance Brand, began working in Apollo and Soyuz simulators and also studying the Russian language. In 1975, they traveled to the Soviet Union and its cosmonaut training site at Star City, near Moscow, to take part in joint training activities.

On July 15, 1975, Soviet cosmonauts Aleksei Leonov and Valery Kubasov blasted off from Baikonur Cosmodome in Central Russia. About seven hours later, Slayton and the two other American astronauts went aloft in Apollo 18 from Cape Canaveral.

On July 17, the two craft docked in space. The mission became famous for its "handshake in space" between Stafford and Leonov. During the next two days, the two crews practiced docking procedures, exchanged crew members for a time, conducted joint scientific experiments, shared meals and held a joint televised news conference. They also exchanged symbolic gifts such as tree seeds, which were duly planted upon their return to Earth.

The splashdown on July 19 marked the end of the Apollo manned flights and what was to be Slayton's only flight. The splashdown was marred by an accidental release of nitrogen tetroxide gas. As a result, the astronauts were hospitalized for tests.

Although none of the astronauts received injuries in that mishap, it was discovered that Slayton had a growth on his left lung that probably had been there since before the mission. After surgery, it was announced that the lesion was benign, and Slayton was out of danger.

Slayton was diagnosed as having a brain tumor last year. Medical treatment forced the cancer into remission, but the disease recently reappeared.

"We're all shook up about it," Carpenter, who now lives in Vail, Colo., said of Slayton's death. "There's not much else to say except to mourn the passing of a dear, dear comrade."

Schirra, who lives in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., said, "We've lost a dear friend today."

Donald Kent Slayton was born in Sparta, Wis., and grew up on a farm. In 1942, he went off to war, enlisting in the Army Air Forces. In 1943, he earned his wings. During World War II, he piloted B-25 bombers, flying 56 combat missions over Europe and seven over Japan.

He left the Army in 1946. He received a degree in aeronautical engineering and was an engineer with Boeing Aircraft before being recalled to active duty with the U.S. Air Force in 1951. He was a fighter squadron commander, a wing maintenance officer, a student for four years and then an experimental test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base in California before entering the astronaut program.

After the Apollo-Soyuz mission, he remained with NASA, helping to manage the space shuttle program, before retiring in 1982. After that, he became president of Space Services Inc. of Houston, now a subsidiary of EER Systems Inc. He founded the company to develop rockets for small commercial payloads.

Survivors include his wife, Bobbie, and a son, Kent, 36.

_ Information from the Washington Post, Associated Press and Reuters was used in this report.