I once read the story of Deke Slayton, one of the Mercury 7 astronauts. He was kept from flying in space on a Mercury mission due to a heart murmur. The Apollo 1 crew of Gus, Ed, and Roger wanted to give him something he wouldn’t get officially from NASA: astronaut wings. The men had a pin made for Deke that they planned to take to space with them on their flight, but on January 27th, 1967 the men were killed in a fire during the testing of their Saturn V rocket. The widows of Apollo 1 gave Deke the pin, saying that the men had gotten it for him because he exemplified everything they thought a good astronaut should be. He wore that pin for the rest of his life, even after he got his “real” wings after being medically cleared and flew to space in July, 1975.
I’ve met the modern-age Deke. His name is Brian and he is the strongest man I know. He is a member of the United States Navy and has served as an ordnance man and is now attending the University of Michigan to become an officer. His dream is to become a Naval pilot and then go on to do flight test work, then onward to become an astronaut.
Brian is now battling thyroid cancer for the second time. His first bout with it ended with surgery to remove his thyroid. This past fall he went to get a physical given to him by the Navy and they confirmed what he had feared: they would not allow him to fly due to the removal of his thyroid. A man who’s life has been about becoming an astronaut is now told he cannot fly because he has SURVIVED cancer. What comfort can you give to someone in such a situation? One month later he was re-diagnosed with the cancer.
Next Saturday Brian is graduating from the University of Michigan with high academic standing, an officer position in the NROTC, and a smile on his face. Immediately following graduation he will be completing another round of cancer treatment. Following his treatment he will see if the Navy will keep him on in the officer position he has earned. If not, he plans on going to grad school for engineering, then applying for a job at SpaceX.
Why is Brian like Deke? Because they both embody everything a good astronaut should be: strong, courageous, smart, calm, a team player with impeccable leadership skills. Brian would be THE perfect astronaut if he were given the chance.
So it may not be the gold pin from the crew of Apollo 1 but I thought I would do my best to replicate that gift. Pictured is my graduation present to Brian as he starts the next leg in his journey. My hope is that he will always remember that the world would be extremely lucky to have him in the astronaut corps, remember that even if the Navy doesn’t believe in him, everyone else does, and remember that Deke eventually flew in space after much perseverance and he can too.
Here’s to the people in our lives that fight every single day for their dreams, no matter how many obstacles they may face. Here’s to the cancer survivors who have come through so much to be here today. Here’s to the people not given the opportunities they have earned.
Here’s to Brian.
Some shit just makes you cry.