As a teenager, Alton Yates (L) did a job that helped send people into space.
In the mid-1950s, before NASA existed, 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 600 miles per hour and stopped in a matter of seconds. These experiments helped prove that space travel was safe for humans.
At StoryCorps, Yates told his daughter, Toni, that — for him — the story starts in high school, shortly after his mother died.
After leaving the Air Force in 1959, Alton Yates became involved with the Civil Rights Movement in his hometown of Jacksonville, FL. On August 27, 1960, he attended a sit-in that turned violent, and became known as Ax Handle Day.
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Toni Yates (TY): How did you know he needed your help?
AY: Well he came home from work, he had a little machine that he used to roll cigarettes and he roasted peanuts and he 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 the 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.
TY: How old were you when you did the first test?
AY: I was 19. And 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.
TY: But yet you did that 65 times?
AY: I did it more than 65 times. And let me tell you, there was something about the group of volunteers we had out there. 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. You had your hand on a little trigger and the minute you started to black out, your hand would come off the trigger and that would stop the centrifuge.
TY: Did your dad know what you were doing? (Laughs)
AY: 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. And I think just to make my father proud of me was something that I always wanted to do. And I was able to do that before he passed away.
TY: The day that man went into space, what was that like for you?
AY: I felt a warmth come over my body when I heard the countdown. And even to this day, every time there's a liftoff, I think a little piece of me lifts off with each of those missions.