Fifty years ago, Alan Shepard became the first American in outer space. On his return from the fifteen and a half minute, sub-orbital trip, he got behind the wheel of another rocket – the Chevrolet Corvette. Since that day, the association of astronauts and Corvette sports cars has been tightly bound.
Tomorrow, on May 7th, the Florida city of Cocoa Beach will host a commemorative parade where almost 30 astronauts will gather to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Shepard’s achievement. In suitable fashion, each will ride in a Corvette from the generation when their mission rode to fame.
The parade coordinator is John T. R. Dillon III, himself a Safety Engineer at Kennedy Space Center. Dillon is also a Corvette owner and member of the Cape Kennedy Corvette Club, which included four astronauts among its original members when founded in 1967.
“All of the astronauts were test pilots back then; they flew performance aircraft and they moved into performance cars with a well-honed appreciation for handling, acceleration and so forth,” Dillon said.
Never one to flee from the limelight, Chevrolet-brand president, Edward N. Cole presented Shepard on his return to Earth with a brand new, white, 1962 Corvette. The car had been outfitted by GM designers with a customized space-age interior. Shepard brought along his 1957 Corvette when he reported for Space Program training in April, 1959. He would go on to own at least ten Corvettes in his lifetime.
“In the 1960s, astronauts were the American heroes that every child idolized and every adult respected,” explained Corvette historian and former Corvette Quarterly editor Jerry Burton.
This was not lost on a professional racer, named Jim Rathmann. After winning the 1960 Indianapolis 500, Rathmann opened a Chevrolet-Cadillac dealership in Melbourne, FL, not far from the Space Center, in 1961. Sensing that most of the spacemen were at heart Corvette types, Rathmann negotiated a special lease arrangement with Chevrolet to put them into the sports cars. Six of the Mercury astronauts would take Rathmann up on his Corvette offer.
During an interview in 1998, Rathmann said, “Al Shepard was a racer…he was always wanting to be the fastest guy.”
Not alone in that regard, Mercury astronaut, Virgil ‘Gus’ Grissom went so far as to have his last Corvette, a 1967 convertible, specially geared and modified to accept extra-wide rear racing tires.
Later, Apollo 12 astronauts Dick Gordon, Charles Conrad and Alan Bean would order new 1969 Corvettes through Rathmann, asking that the identical, 390-hp 427 Stingray coupes be custom finished in a special black-accented Gold color scheme designed by Bean. LIFE Magazine published a photo of the space-suited Apollo 12 astronauts and their matching Corvettes.
The association between Chevrolet’s Corvette sports car and fellows of the “Right Stuff” has continued since, reflected both in real life and movies. Even Chevrolet’s recent “Still Building Rockets” commercial draws heavily on that connection.
As a renewed focus on the Moon and Mars builds toward reality once again, the recognition and celebration of those first steps to space flight would be lacking without a few Corvettes around.