Astronauts and Corvettes: Just Like Mom, Apple Pie, and Rock & Roll
Corvettes have always been something to be admired, as they’re generally driven by people who are in a certain position in life. Usually the discerning Corvette owner is someone who appreciates performance, good looks, and sex appeal, and they’re almost always at a position in life where they actually have the cash required to own a Corvette. That means that most Vettes are not driven by kids in their teens, or even by a lot of people still in their 20’s. Corvettes are driven by successful people. People who have taken risks, and won. People that have made it.
With all of that being said, it should come as no surprise to you that the car of choice by astronauts in the 1960’s was (drumroll please) none other than the Corvette. Astronauts were men that were front and center in the public eye and were symbols of bravery, risk taking, and all out coolness. They had made it. They were bigger than rock stars in the United States, at least for a time, and General Motors waned to make sure that the world saw them driving the fastest, coolest, bravest car around, the Corvette. The story of astronauts and their Corvette’s is one of historical significance, but to really tell it well we’ll need to start at the beginning. First, a little history lesson.
The beginnings of the US space program grew out of the end of the Second World War, and the massive leap ahead in technology that occurred over the course of just a few short years. Rockets transitioned from novelties to serious weapons, and for the first time in history, the idea of sending a person beyond the boundaries of this world became not just possible but inevitable. The Cold War was starting to heat up with the Soviet Union, and both the East and West were going to great lengths to prove that they could get to space first. It was more than a mere “mine is bigger than yours” competition as it was likely that whoever made it to space first would have control of missiles that could be launched from space. In other words, getting to space, and getting their pronto, was of National interest. Enter the astronauts!
During the 1950’s modern day NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration) was being formed from it’s previous incarnation of NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics) and the mission of NASA was to get men into space. The program that would take a US citizen into space first would be called Mercury, but before you ask, it had no relation to the car company.
The Mercury mission would be a single manned rocket, and seven men were chosen to be first. These men would be called the “Mercury 7″ and would become household names almost overnight. The men that were chosen for the mission were to have a college degree and (wait for it) would need to be experienced test pilots! Almost all of them would be former fighter pilots as well.
Thus, the first generation of astronauts would all have something in common as they’d all be brave, skilled, risk-taking, swash buckling test pilots. They would claim space for their own and the hearts of a nation while they were at it. This is when the names of Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, and John Glenn became etched into history. And now, finally, with all of that background information laid it’s time for the Corvette to enter the picture.
GM saw both a service and a marketing opportunity with the astronauts’ fame. GM President Ed Cole gave Alan Shepard, the first American in space, a 1962 Corvette as a gift for his service to his country, though it was not in character for GM to give away cars; not even to astronauts. According to Dollie Cole, Ed Cole’s widow, the gift made perfect sense, despite GM’s normal tendency to avoid things like that. “The astronauts were incredibly visible,” she recalled in an interview recently re-published on VetteWeb.com. “And good publicity is good publicity.”
She felt the Corvettes were more than a publicity stunt, but were actually a gift of appreciation. “Who more worthy than guys who represent our country?” Dollie declares. “They were literally risking their lives. Space travel today isn’t ‘ho hum’, but people perceive it that way. There were so many unknowns then. The cars were a way of saying ‘Thank you.'”
Aside from Shepard, no astronaut was given a Corvette from GM, and for one big reason that had nothing to do with GM policy; it turned out that astronauts were not allowed to take gifts or do endorsements. That being said, they could lease cars at exceptional rates and thus the $1 astronaut lease program was born. Some report that it was done so initially at Rathmann Chevrolet/Cadillac in Melbourne, Florida. For the cost of $1/year astronauts could lease any car of their choice, and most chose the Corvette. Actually, they were allowed to lease two vehicles, so most generally chose one family car and one Corvette. We don’t have a definitive time line as to when the program actually began, but the best guess is somewhere in the early 1960’s. The program ended in 1971 as the moon landings came to a close, and it’s reported that public complaints about the program helped lead to its demise.
It turned out that the Corvette was the perfect car for space jockeys with a flair for speed, danger, and competition. Gus Grissom, the second American in space, loved his Corvette’s dearly, but hated losing drag races to his fellow astronauts. In the fall of 1966 both he and fellow astronaut Alan Shepard, the first American in space, took delivery of identical brand new 1967 427/435 horsepower Corvette Roadsters. Grissom hated losing races to Shepard so he asked Jim Rathmann, owner of Jim Rathmann Chevrolet/Cadillac in Melbourne, FL to help him with his new Corvette. According to gusgrissomcorvette.com, Rathmann obliged and ever-so-slightly widened the rear wheel openings to allow room for bigger tires and put in a 4:56 posi rear end. Grissom won nearly every race against Shepard as a result, and we have no idea if Alan Shepard ever knew of the modifications!
Just a few months after acquiring his ’67 Corvette, Grissom, along with his fellow astronauts Roger Chaffee and Edward White, died in the Apollo 1 fire on the launch pad at Cape Kennedy on January 27, 1967. About a year after his death his wife returned the Corvette to Rathmann’s dealership, and it eventually surfaced in 2007 at the Russo and Steele Auction in Scottsdale, Arizona, where it was purchased for $275,000 after some very intense bidding. It is now part of an Arizona car collection.
Only The Best Would Do
It seemed that all astronauts had a Corvette somewhere in the mix. Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon, had a Corvette. Jim Lovell, the Commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13 mission, had a Corvette. But perhaps the most interest Astronaut/Corvette story came with the crew of Apollo 12, because they acquired matching Corvettes! Apollo 12 launched for the moon on November 14, 1969 and it’s members were Mission Commander Pete Conrad, Lunar Module Pilot, Al Bean, and Command Module Pilot Dick Gordon. The three were close knit and remained friends even after their NASA days.
The idea of matching cars was unique to the Apollo 12 crew as no other Apollo team did it, despite the fact that it was common for them to be driving a Corvette. In the aforementioned interview, Al Bean recalled the situation. “We liked the idea. It was a way to be a team and build esprit d’ corps. We all talked about it, and the first couple of ideas didn’t work.” The Corvettes that the astronauts chose were a trio of identical Riverside Gold ’69 coupes. Each was equipped with the stock 427 CI/390HP engine, had Head Restraints (RPO A82), 4-Season Air Conditioning (RPO C60), Special Wheel Covers (RPO PO2), and the AM/FM Pushbutton Radio (RPO U69).
A special paint scheme of black “wings” was applied over the Riverside Gold, and the red, white, and blue logos were also added. Jim Rathman added the white line between black and gold. Additionally, the initials of each person’s position on the Apollo crew was added to the cars. Pete Conrad had ‘CDR’ (for Commander), Dick Gordon had ‘CMP’ (for Command Module Pilot), and Al Bean had ‘LMP’ (for Lunar Module Pilot). The famous picture in Life Magazine above was of the Apollo 12 crew and their ’69 Corvettes.
Lost And Found
Though the Apollo 12 crew did love their Corvettes, they were merely leased cars and at the end of their lease all three were turned in. Collectors started to see an opportunity, and this is where Danny Reed of Austin, Texas came into the picture. He knew of the matching Apollo 12 Corvettes from Life Magazine, and he was well aware of the special lease program. He found one of the Corvettes at a Chevy lot in Austin where it had been turned in, and he instantly knew what it was. Danny recalled, “I had an interest in the space program. It’s a big part of history, as are Corvettes. I wanted to preserve it.” The Corvette was in decent condition, but unfortunately wasn’t immediately for sale. It took the dealership some time to decide what to do with it, and that was long enough for the tires on the Corvette to go flat. The dealership finally decided to sell the car under a closed bid system. Reed got the winning call when the “winning” bidder didn’t come up with the money!
Reed initially used the car sparingly with plans to bring it out during the 50th anniversary of the Apollo missions, but plans changed in the 1990’s and he had the car restored to factory pristine condition. It won the prestigious NCRS Top Flight award in its first try at the NCRS Mardi Gras Regional meet in Baton Rouge and that honor was followed by a second Top Flight at the 2001 NCRS National Meet. When Al Bean saw the Corvette again at Johnson Space Center’s “Need for Speed” exhibit he was very pleased with its condition. He said, “It’s really fixed up as good as it can be. It looks better than when I had it. It’s a beautiful car.”
Today in 2011 the US manned spaceflight program is going through major changes, and a lot of uncertainty is in the air with the end of the Space Shuttle with no follow-up yet online. We do know that today’s astronauts have just as much “guts” as those in the days before though and while we really have no idea what type of car most astronauts drive today, here’s hoping it’s a fast 2-seater from Chevrolet. Rocket men (and women) need rocket cars.