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Sparta’s astronaut could have been the first man in space: the prediction 61 years ago

Brad Williams

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In April of 1959, the introduction of America’s first seven astronauts was front-page news around the country, and especially for the La Crosse Tribune, which touted the selection of Sparta’s Capt. Deke Slayton for the Mercury program.  At the time, Slayton was a test pilot at Edwards Air Force Base.  NASA declared that all seven men would get identical training, and the first one to go into space would not be notified until the day of the mission.  In reality, the agency chose Alan Shepard to make the first flight four months before his mission.  Slayton was supposed to fly in 1962, but a medical problem kept him grounded until 1975.  

On the same day that the astronauts made their debut, the future president who would push the U.S. to put a man on the moon was visiting Wisconsin.  Massachusetts Senator John Kennedy was already being considered a likely candidate in the 1960 presidential race.  Kennedy was in the state to speak at the annual dinner for the Milwaukee Press Club.  A cartoon in the Tribune joked that Kennedy didn’t have a chance of becoming president because, unlike President Eisenhower, he didn’t fish or play golf.  

Governor Gaylord Nelson was told that Auto-Lite would not change its plans to close the La Crosse factory.  Nelson and La Crosse Mayor Milo Knutson were among the Wisconsin dignitaries trying to keep the local plant open, which could save about 1300 jobs.   

Around Flag Day in ’59, a La Crosse woman announced that she would fly her old 46-star flag on the 4th of July.  Mrs. M.B. Stenger said the flag, about 50 years old, had been in her family since shortly after star #46 was added for Oklahoma.  That summer, a new 49-star flag was adopted, to celebrate the addition of Alaska…in 1959, yesterday in La Crosse.

A native of Prairie du Chien, Brad graduated from UW - La Crosse and has worked in radio news for more than 30 years, mostly in the La Crosse area. He regularly covers local courts and city and county government. Brad produces the features "Yesterday in La Crosse" and "What's Buried on Brad's Desk." He also writes the website "Triviazoids," which finds odd connections between events that happen on a certain date, and he writes and performs with the local comedy group Heart of La Crosse. Brad been featured on several national TV programs because of his memory skills.

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