On May 7, 2011, the Cocoa Beach (Florida) Chamber of Commerce celebrated the 50th anniversary of Mercury 7 astronaut Alan Shepard's sub-orbital flight into space.
Shepard's role in securing America's spot in the space race put him on the front page of newspapers from coast to coast, but he's credited with helping launch the relationship between astronauts and Corvettes, too. His first Corvette was a '53, which he bought for $1,500 from his father-in-law in 1954, and he purchased a '57 prior to reporting for Space Program training at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in April 1959.
According to author Jerry Burton-whose book Corvette: America's Sports Car: Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow, details the Corvette/ astronaut saga-"Alan Shepard developed a relationship with [Chevrolet Director of High Performance] Zora Arkus-Duntov that led to invitations to drive preproduction models. Afterwards, Duntov and Shepard would go waterskiing off the back of Duntov's twin-big-block Chris Craft on Lake St. Clair [Florida]. Duntov and Chevrolet General Manager Ed Cole would in turn travel down to Cape Canaveral to witness an occasional launch.
"The ongoing friendship led to Duntov's attempt to get GM to give Shepard a new Corvette," Burton says.
"At first, I met with some resistance," Duntov told the author, "I was able to offer him a Corvette engine..."
But when Shepard returned to earth on May 5, 1961, after his headline-making mission, Cole invited the astronaut to Detroit for a more substantial gift-a brand-new '62 Corvette with a "space-age" interior.
Burton explains: "[It wouldn't have happened without] Corvette sales promotion manager and former Corvette News editor Joe Pike, who went directly to Cole and convinced him what a unique opportunity for Chevrolet this was. Once Cole gave the green light, a '62 Corvette with [Ermine] White exterior was selected, which was then turned over to Bill Mitchell at Design Staff for a complete interior makeover, including altimeter gauges."
General Motors had no further plans to give new Corvettes to the other six Mercury 7 astronauts, but 1960 Indy 500 winner Jim Rathmann did. He had just opened a Chevrolet/Cadillac dealership in Melbourne, Florida, near the Space Center, and decided that all NASA astronauts needed to be driving America's Favorite Sports Car. He worked a special deal with GM, so that every spaceman who wanted a brand-new Corvette could lease one for $1 a year, and then trade it back in the subsequent model year for the newest iteration of the breed. (Astronauts were allowed two vehicles per year under the program and were not limited to Corvettes, although many chose them.)
The arrangement continued through the Apollo 15 space program in 1971.
Along the way, many of NASA's most famous names took Chevrolet and Rathmann up on the generous offer, including Gus Grissom, who picked out a Lynndale Blue '67 427/435 roadster. Tragically, Grissom barely had time to enjoy the car, as he perished in the Apollo 1 fire on January 27, 1967.
"When I came in 1963, which was the third group of astronauts, the arrangement had already been in place for a number of years," Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean says in an exclusive interview. In 1969, the Apollo 12 lunar team-Bean, Pete Conrad, and Dick Gordon-asked Rathmann for three identically prepared Riverside Gold Corvette 427/390 coupes, which were customized with a special two-tone design dreamed up by Bean. The men were photographed with their cars for a story that was published in Life magazine.
Apollo 15 lunar-mission crew members Jim Irwin, Al Worden, and Dave Scott chose a more-patriotic palette for their '71 Corvettes, which Rathmann provided. The cars were Mille Miglia Red, Classic White, and Bridgehampton Blue, which, when photographed in that order, displayed the three colors of the American flag. They and their Corvettes were also photographed for a story in Life.
Though the Cocoa Beach celebration was held two days after the anniversary of Shepard's flight, the city's Chamber of Commerce came up with the idea of celebrating all generations of astronauts and pairing them with all six generations of Corvettes-teaming each astronaut with a Corvette that most closely matched the year of his or her space mission.
In attendance were one of the two last living astronauts from Mercury 7, Scott Carpenter; Dick Gordon, from the Gemini and Apollo space programs; Apollo astronauts Walt Cunningham and Ed Mitchell; Skylab astronaut Bill Pogue; Skylab and Space Shuttle veteran Jack Lousma; and other retired and modern-day Space Shuttle astronauts.
The event was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for NASA astronauts from five decades of space flight to come together and celebrate their unofficial bond with the Corvette. For more information, check out GM's videography of the event at fastlane.gmblogs.com.
Astronauts on Parade
|C1||Laura Shepard Churchley (Alan Shepard’s daughter)/Mercury|
|Suzan Cooper (Gordon Cooper’s widow)/Mercury|
|C2||Dick Gordon/Gemini and Apollo|
|C3||Edgar (Ed) Mitchell/Apollo|
|Jack Lousma/Skylab and Space Shuttle|
|C4||Rick Hauck/Space Shuttle|
|Jon McBride/Space Shuttle|
|Loren Shriver/Space Shuttle|
|C5||John David Bartoe/Space Shuttle|
|Bob Springer/Space Shuttle|
|Sam Durrance/Space Shuttle|
|Bob Cabana/Space Shuttle and Kennedy Space Center Director|
|Susan Still–Kilrain/Space Shuttle|
|Don McMonagle/Space Shuttle|
|Jim "JR" Reilly/Space Shuttle|