How a Wisconsin farm boy grew up to be an astronaut

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(WXOW) – Saturday, July 20 marks 50 years since the United States landed on the moon.

It was one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind that took thousands of hours and hundreds of people to make happen.

One of America’s first astronauts is from a small town in Monroe County.

Donald Kent Slayton, also known as Deke, was behind the scenes. “He was the one that was the head of the training and the head of those astronauts, but he was the one that chose the crews and made the decisions,” said Bob Allen, UW-La Crosse Planetarium Director.

Before Apollo 11 made the historic space mission, Deke’s dreams of space exploration were just a glimmer.

“He learned early on on the farm if you don’t do the work it’s not going to get done for you,” said Alyssa Young, Interim Museum Manager at the Deke Slayton Memorial Space & Bike Museum in Sparta.

Born March 1st, 1924 in the Town of Leon near Sparta, Deke was expected to continue working on his family’s farm. But he wanted more. Living near Volk Field and seeing planes fly overhead, Slayton set his eyes upward.

Alyssa said, “He lost a finger at five, so when he wanted to be a pilot they had to do a lot of research and it turned out that was the only finger he could possibly be missing.”

Deke’s first setback didn’t stop him. He enlisted in the Army and piloted a B-25 during WWII. He flew 56 combat missions. He would eventually become a test pilot for the US Air Force and was selected for the NASA Astronaut Program.

“He had the endurance already from being a fighter pilot and that mentality already of ‘I’m going to get this done even if it seems hard and scary still gonna do it’,” added Young. In 1959, Deke was named one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, but he never flew in that program. A heart condition grounded him for decades.

Then, 16 years later, his space dreams would become reality when he flew in the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, the first joint mission with the Soviet Union.

Kitty Geier and her husband are visiting the museum from Madison.  Kitty thinks Slayton’s story can teach youth about their future. “Continue your dream. Pursue what you want. It might take a long time. Anybody can do it, even from Sparta, Wisconsin.”

Slayton never forgot his roots. “He stayed that humble farm boy throughout his life,” said Young.  His hometown still celebrates him. The Deke Slayton Museum is home to his space suit and many memories.

Bob Allen added that other astronauts described Deke as the test pilot’s test pilot, he was always willing to fly anything. His nickname Deke came about because there was another astronaut named Don. Slayton died of brain cancer in June of 1993 in Texas.

The Deke Slayton Memorial Space and Bike Museum in Sparta will be doing discounted admission rates this Saturday. Tickets to get in will be 50% off.

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