LEAGUE CITY, Texas -- Former Astronaut Donald 'Deke' Slayton died in his sleep Sunday after yearlong treatment for a brain tumor, relatives said. He was 69.
Sources said Slayton was hospitalized a year ago for the condition and after treatment the tumor went into remission, but recently flared again.
A relative at the family home said Slayton's wife and daughter were with him when he died at 3:22 a.m.
Slayton was the last of the original Mercury astronauts to leave the space program and he spent 16 years trying to convince medical authorities he was physically fit to go into orbit.
Slayton overcame a heart irregularity that grounded him in the early phases of the program that put the first men on the moon.
He and two other astronauts joined two Soviet cosmonauts in orbit in July 1975.
'It feels great,' Slayton told a news conference from orbit. 'The only thing that upsets me is to have missed this fun the last 16 years. I never believed it was quite as great as it really is. I don't think there's any way you can really express it.'
During the historic joint flight, the director of the Johnson Space Center said he planned to offer Slayton the job directing the testing of the space shuttle rocket plane and would be considered as a pilot for that program.
'I'm looking forward to working on the shuttle or anything else that NASA management wants me to do,' Slayton said then. 'I'm looking forward to it as a challenge.
'I like to fly anything, and if I get a chance to fly that beauty I'll sure be happy.'
Martin Caidan, a close friend of Slayton's and the author of many books on astronauts, said: 'I think that if Hollywood tried to create somebody bigger than life, who had an incredible stick-to-it-ness, they couldn't have done better than Deke Slayton.'
Caidin said Slayton strugged to prove to NASA he was phycially fit to fly, and 'even though he wasn't allowed in space for 16 years because of a heart murmur he still stuck with NASA.'
Slayton, born in Sparta, Wis., March 1, 1924, was the sentimental favorite of the astronaut office although he ran the elite corps with an iron hand. He wrote the book of regulations and saw that they were followed.
Picked in the first group of astronauts in April l959, Slayton was to pilot the Mercury Atlas 7 flight in May 1962. A heart defect called idiopathic atrial fibrillation caused him to be replaced by M. Scott Carpenter.
Slayton fought the grounding, which meant he even had to have a copilot to fly jets while the other astronauts appealed to President John Kennedy to reinstate him. Nothing worked and Slayton moved in to head the astronaut office, assigning the pilots for each flight and watching his chances of flying in space grow ever dimmer.
But 10 years later doctors said the heart problem had cleared up and Slayton was returned to flight status and was soon named to the Apollo- Soyuz crew.
'To some people, life begins at 40,' Slayton said at the time. 'To me, it's more like 50, but I guess I'd rather be a 50-year-old rookie than a 50-year-old has been.'
Slayton was married to the former Marjory Luney of Los Angeles. They had a son and a daughter.
He entered the Air Force in April 1943 and flew 63 B25 bombing missions over Europe and Japan during World War II. He went to the University of Minnesota after the war, but was recalled to active duty in 1951 and served in Germany.
Before selection to the astronaut corps, Slayton attended the Air Force test pilot school. He resigned his commission as an Air Force major in 1963 to become NASA's director of flight crew operations but left that position for the joint flight.