I was 15 when the tenth anniversary of the Apollo-Soyuz mission rolled around. I was attending a space-themed summer program, and we carpooled to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC, for a symposium commemorating the event. Standing in the museum near John Glenn’s Friendship 7 capsule, I about jumped out of my skin when our teacher told us the cosmonauts and astronauts would be in attendance, too.
After one of the symposium lectures, I worked up the courage to approach Deke Slayton—one of the original Mercury astronauts and the docking module pilot of the U.S. crew for the Apollo-Soyuz mission. I stumbled through a halting introduction—during which Deke seemed to think I was a museum intern. That made me laugh, and I relaxed just enough to tell him how much I admired him.
Deke had been grounded during the Mercury program for an irregular heart rhythm. (I would be diagnosed with my own mitral valve prolapse in 1997.) But he didn’t quit the program. He stuck with NASA and became “chief astronaut,” advocating on behalf of the astronaut corps, finally making it into space for his one and only spaceflight on Apollo-Soyuz.
I’ll never forget the look on his face when I told him what a hero he’d been to me, for his courage and his perseverance. Visibly humbled, he told me how much those words meant to him, and he hugged me. I still get teary thinking about that.
My own health issues mean I’ll probably never leave this planet, but I am finally starting to write space-faring fiction. I’d like to think that would make Deke smile.
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