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A Teenager In The 1950s, Extreme Sledding For The Air Force

Aug 29, 2014
Originally published on August 29, 2014 6:00 am

In the mid-1950s, Alton Yates was preparing to graduate from high school. His mother had recently passed away, and his father was struggling to raise seven kids on his own.

"I knew that as soon as I finished high school I was going to have to help with taking care of the family," Yates tells his daughter, Toni, on a visit to StoryCorps in Jacksonville, Fla.

Most of the jobs available to him wouldn't pay well, so he decided to join the Air Force. They were looking for volunteers to help test the effects of space travel on the human body.

"I became one of the human guinea pigs who rode high-speed rocket sleds," Yates says.

It may sound like fun, but it was not easy work by any means.

"When the sled took off, it was almost as if everything in your body was being forced out through your back. And then when it stopped, it was like driving an automobile at a hundred miles an hour and running into a stone wall," Yates tells his daughter.

He did this more than 65 times.

"Did your dad know what you were doing?" Toni asks.

"He didn't know initially, but Ebony magazine published an article that showed pictures of some of these rocket sleds that I had been riding. When my dad got a copy of that magazine, he took that thing everywhere he went," Alton says. "I think just to make my father proud of me was something that I always wanted to do."

Audio produced for Morning Edition by Michael Garofalo and Jud Esty-Kendall.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

It's Friday - time for StoryCorps. Today, we hear about a teenager whose job helped send humans into space. It was in the mid-1950s. Alton Yates was part of a small group of Air Force volunteers who tested the effects of high-speeds on the body. They were strapped to rocket-propelled sleds that hurtled down a track at more than 600 miles-per-hour. These experiments helped prove that space travel was safe for humans. At StoryCorps, Yates told his daughter, Toni, the story started for him in high school, shortly after his mother died.

ALTON YATES: My dad was trying to raise the seven of us by himself. And I knew that as soon as I finished high school I was going to have to help with taking care of the family.

TONI: How did you know he needed your help?

YATES: Well, he home from work. And he rolled cigarettes. He roasted peanuts and put them in little bags. And then he left home immediately to sell those products. And I just couldn't stand to see him continue to do that. There weren't any good paying jobs just out of high school. So I decided to join the Air Force. And a call had gone out for volunteers to determine the effects of space travel on the human body. So I became one of the human guinea pigs who rode high-speed rocket sleds.

TONI: How old were you when you did the first test?

YATES: I was 19. When the sled took off, it was almost as if everything in your body was being forced out through your back. And then when it stopped, it was like driving an automobile at a 100 miles-an-hour and running into a stone wall.

TONI: But, yet, you did that 65 times?

YATES: I did it more than 65 times. And let me tell you, there was something about the group of volunteers - I remember one. When they took him off the sled, he was like a dish rag. The rest of us saw what happened to him, but we were anxious to get strapped in to that seat to conduct the next experiment. We went up to Johnsville, Pennsylvania. They had a huge centrifuge up there. We rode that thing at high speeds. And you had your hand on a little trigger. And the minute you started to blackout, your hand would come off the trigger. And that would stop the centrifuge.

TONI: Did your dad know what you were doing? (Laughter)

YATES: He didn't know initially. But Ebony Magazine published an article that showed pictures of some of these rocket sleds that I had been riding. When my dad got a copy of that magazine, he took that everywhere he went. And I think to make my father proud of me was something that I've always wanted to do. And I was able to do that before he passed away.

TONI: The day that man went into space, what was that like for you?

YATES: I felt a warmth that came over my body when I heard the countdown. And even to this day, every time there is a lift off, I think a little piece of me lifts off with each one of those missions.

GREENE: That's Alton Yates with his daughter, Toni, at StoryCorp in Jacksonville, Florida. Their interview is archived at the Library of Congress. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.