60 Years ago: Deke Slayton & Delta 7

Deke Slayton, selected to fly the second orbital Mercury flight

*

*

“Delta 7, Delta 7, Canary Capcom.   Deke, what is your status?”

“Stand by one.”   You are 16 minutes into the flight of Delta 7, the follow-up flight to John Glenn’s first orbital Mercury flight.  “This is Delta 7, control checks complete, but I may have a problem here.”

You are Deke Slayton, flying capsule you’ve named Delta 7, delta meaning “change in,” as in Delta-V, change in velocity.  “On ASCS”  That’s the automatic control system.  “The view out the window does not agree with the instruments.”  A scribe mark on the window before you should be pinned on the earth’s horizon.  Instead, the horizon is 20 degrees below it.  “Pitch it off.”

Damn, you’re supposed to be beginning a bunch of science experiments, starting with photography.  They’ve tried to cram your flight with science.  You’ve resisted.  This is why.  It’s only the second orbital flight — too early to junk up a flight with that stuff.  You’re going to keep a close eye on this, even at the cost of the science tasks . . .   Switch to manual fly-by-wire and back to auto.  Now the damn ASCS appears to be holding on the button. 

*

It’s now the start of the second orbit, coming up on 2 hrs. into the 5-hr. flight.  You’ve deployed the idiotic balloon the scientists want you to observe.  Ha — the thing doesn’t inflate.  Figures.  To hell with it.   Because the automatic orientation problem in pitch has returned.  The auto system is guzzling fuel trying to correct the attitude, the window’s scribe mark swinging from 50 degrees above the horizon to 20 degrees below.  Some sort of intermittent failure.  

It’s time for you to do what you do best — be a pure test pilot.  It’s not the thrusters themselves,  they’re operating as advertised.  It could be an error in the horizon scanner which feeds position data to the automatic system.  Whatever it is, you can’t trust the ASCS.  By God, it looks like you’re going to have to fly on manual.  And that means align the capsule manually for re-entry at the end of three orbits.  You want to take your time and make sure everything is set.

Pitch is proving relatively easy to hold by eyeballing the horizon.  Yaw — that’s side-to-side motion — is much harder to determine, especially over water without landmark cues.   Focus, work that hand controller, ease this baby into position. 

“This is Delta 7, maneuvering to retro attitude.”  You know one thing — you’re Deke Slayton and you’re gonna nail this re-entry.  

*

“Delta, 7, Delta 7, do you read?”

Silence.

“Delta, 7, Delta 7, do you read?”

Silence.

Because Deke isn’t up there.

Because there is no Delta 7.

Because on March 13, you are called out of training for the flight and ordered to Washington.  For yet another set of medical evaluations.  You know what it’s about.  It began during a centrifuge run in August 1959, a slight skip in your heartbeat.  It didn’t affect your performance, but it showed up on the EKG.  The condition is called Idiopathic (cause unknown) Paroxysmal (sporadic) Atrial (the hearts filling chamber) Fibrillation (increase in beat).

NASA and Air Force doctors judged it no problem.  It’s just once every couple weeks, your pulse would jump around a bit — never a problem, always goes away in a day or two, especially if you exercise.  Case closed — and forgotten.

Case closed — but not forgotten by one of the doctors who reviewed the case.  With the issue raised again, NASA Administrator James Webb orders a review.  On March 14, eight Air Force surgeons give you yet more exams.  And again you are cleared for flight.  But Webb, perhaps under political pressure from White House Science Advisor Jerome Weisner, a critic of Project Mercury, convenes three civilian cardiologists with no experience in aviation to review the case.  They tell Webb what he wants to hear.

What if on launch or retrofire, his heart started fibrillating?  And worse, what if something happens on the flight, even if not related to the astronaut’s medical condition?  People would point to it anyway and give NASA hell.  So why fly an astronaut with a heart condition, when you have six perfectly healthy ones? 

So on March 15, 1962, they pull the flight from you.  You are grounded.  Delta 7 is no more.  Your flight is handed to Scott Carpenter who will take your capsule and renamed it Aurora 7.  

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