The AstroVette

The AstroVette an astronaut's Corvette from the beginning of the Space Age

John Nelson Aug 27, 2002 0 Comment(s)

For the most part, the people of the world go about the business of their lives without giving conscious thought to the historical importance of what's happening around them. There are times, however, when the shear magnitude of current events leaves no doubt that history is being made. Such was certainly the case during the late '50s, throughout the '60s, and into the early '70s, when the United States took up the challenge of manned spaceflight. The mere fact that men were leaving the confines of Mother Earth was enough to inform the world that important history was being made. And when President Kennedy set landing on the moon by the end of the '60s as NASA's goal, the events that followed couldn't help but take on mythic proportions. The prospect of not only leaving the Earth, but of actually setting foot on another world, was nothing short of incredible.

The young men who chose to accept the challenge became national heroes. They were, after all, facing a dangerous unknown--outer space. Today's Space Shuttle flights may appear routine, but the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo flights were anything but. Accordingly, the men chosen were accustomed to dealing with danger and challenges as military aviators and test pilots. Testing the limits of man and machine was their business. They faced the challenges and succeeded, accomplishing what was thought impossible and becoming American legends in the process.

It's only natural that many of the men who pushed the limits of speed and performance in state of the art air and space vehicles would want high levels of both in their automobiles, leading America's early astronauts to become linked with another American legend, the Corvette. Navy pilot Alan Shepard, one of the original "Mercury Seven," was on his second Corvette, a '57, when he joined the space program in April, 1959. Shepard loved fast cars, and his affinity for Corvette (he'd also owned a '53) didn't go unnoticed by Chief Engineer Zora Arkus-Duntov. Duntov even brought Shepard to Detroit to test-drive pre-production models. Despite the status and celebrity of the new astronauts, the idea of giving any of them a Corvette was anathema to The General. Sometime after Shepard's first suborbital flight, GM President Ed Cole decided that Shepard should receive a Corvette, which he did--a '62, with a deluxe Bill Mitchell interior.

Though it was out of character for GM to give away cars, Cole's decision to do so, according to his widow, Dollie (Chairman of the National Corvette Museum and Vice Chairman of the National Air & Space Museum), it made perfect sense. "The astronauts were incredibly visible," she recalls. "And good publicity is good publicity." Putting an astronauts in Corvettes wasn't just a publicity stunt, though. "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.'"

The astronauts could not make product endorsements, however, so Shepard's deal was a one-time-only affair--until Jim Rathman got involved. Rathman, a Chevrolet and Cadillac dealer in Melbourne, Florida (and winner of the 1960 Indy 500), met and became friends with Shepard and fellow Mercury astronaut (and high-performance car enthusiast) Gus Grissom. Rathman approached Ed Cole about setting up the astronauts with an executive lease program, and the longtime link between astronaut and Corvette was born.

The driving adventures of several of the members of the original seven became part of both Corvette and Astronaut lore. Shepard and Grissom especially engaged in a friendly rivalry, constantly hopping up their cars in an attempt to outdo the other man. Gordon Cooper even held SCCA and NASCAR licenses, and raced some on the latter circuit. The "perk" of owning a Corvette wasn't endorsed by just the lead-footed astronauts--the chance to own one of the world's premier performance cars was something many of the astronauts jumped at. Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean remembers those days well. "There were parking spaces in front of Building #3 (at the Johnson Space Center)," he recalls. "There were all these different color Corvettes lined up...it looked pretty fancy." It also made the local roads and highways a bit more interesting. "Anytime you saw one coming (a Corvette), it was another astronaut, and you'd look to see who it was."

Bean, another Navy captain and test pilot, joined the space program in October, 1963, one of the third group of astronauts. He served as the backup astronaut for Gemini 10 and Apollo 9 before finally heading into space as Lunar Module Pilot for Apollo 12, the second lunar landing, where he became the

fourth man to walk on the moon (November 14-24, 1969). He later returned to space as Spacecraft Commander of Skylab Mission II (1973) before resigning from NASA in 1981. Bean liked cars, but not for the same reason as his heavy-footed astronaut brethren. "Although I'm an aeronautical engineer," he says, "I've always been attracted to the cars I thought looked the best. I didn't realize it then, but I'm an artist now, and it's part of my caring about how things look." (Most of Bean's paintings focus on a subject he knows as well or better than anyone--the moon. He even includes a small amount of moon dust in each painting.)

Though looks alone were enough reason for Bean to take advantage of the Corvette program, he wasn't immune to the car's power. "I never drove it hard, but I liked the power," he remembers. He'll even admit to scaring himself a bit while taking his uncle for a "test ride" in the car. "The Stingray shape is a great shape," he enthuses. "They're much more lined than today, more beautiful."

Though it wasn't uncommon for astronauts to drive Corvettes, the Apollo 12 crew is the only group who decided to drive matching cars. The astronauts: Charles "Pete" Conrad Jr., Richard Gordon Jr., and Bean, were a close-knit bunch who remained friends after their NASA days. (Conrad, who also remained a Corvette enthusiast, died in 1999.) "We liked the idea," Bean recalls. "It was a way to be a team and build esprit de corps. We all talked about it, and the first couple of ideas didn't work." The black "wings" that were finally agreed upon were added to three Riverside Gold '69 coupes after they left the factory--exactly who did the work is a bit of a mystery. The red, white, and blue logos were also added. Jim Rathman added the white line between black and gold. Otherwise, the cars were stock 427/390 four-speed coupes, sporting Head Restraints (RPO A82), 4-Season Air Conditioning (RPO C60), Special Wheel Covers (RPO PO2), and the AM/FM Pushbutton Radio (RPO U69).

"It was a big part of the program," Bean comments. "I thought it was manna from heaven. I wish I still had a deal like that." Unfortunately, though, all good things must come to an end, and so did that year's lease. Bean turned his Stingray in to Chevrolet, as did the other astronauts. This was, in fact, one of, if not the last, years for the astronaut lease program. Complaints from the public lead to the discontinuation of the program, and one of the most visible affiliations between man and machine ever seen ended.

Enter Danny Reed of Austin, Texas. Reed is a self-proclaimed "Chevy man" who has owned a split-window coupe and has driven Corvettes "on and off" his whole life. He first saw the Apollo 12 cars in the December 1969 issue of Life. Reed also knew about the special lease program. The Corvette was turned in to a GM/AC lot in Austin, which is where Reed found it. "I knew what it was," he recalls. "I had an interest in the space program. It's a big part of history, as are Corvettes. I wanted to preserve it."

Reed remembers the car as being in "reasonably good shape," but that it did sit on the lot for awhile--long enough for the tires to go flat--while the dealership tried to decide what to do with the car. It was finally put up for sale under closed bids. Reed put in a bid, and six weeks later, when the "winner" didn't come up with the money, took home his piece of history in August of 1971.

As you might expect, Reed has done his share of research on this unique piece of history. Though he's not sure where the black graphics were applied, he's got the scoop on the red, white, and blue logos on the Stingray's front fenders. "The initials 'LMP'(for Lunar Module Pilot) appear over the blue in the emblem on Alan Bean's Corvette. On the other two matching AstroVettes, Pete Conrad Jr. had 'CDR' (for Commander) over white, and Dick Gordon Jr. had 'CMP' (for Command Module Pilot) over red." The colors also corresponded to that of each man's personal belongings on the mission.

Reed originally intended to keep the car hidden until the 50th anniversary of the Apollo flight, and only put about 5,000 miles on the car between 1971 and 1996 (leaving it with just 33,000 miles on the clock). The plan changed, however, when the Johnson Space Center discovered the whereabouts of Alan Bean's Apollo 12 Corvette. They asked him to display the car at the facility's annual open house, and that was a request he couldn't turn down. He displayed the car once a year until the year 2000, when he finally decided that he wanted the car to be "exactly perfect." In August of that year, he began what he calls "a painstaking effort, trying to get everything as original as possible" the yardstick would be the exacting NCRS Top Flight standards.

Reed took the car to Corvettes by Ray in Houston, where Reed worked on the Stingray with owner Ray Repczynski. Repczynski let Reed work on the car at his shop, which Reed did three weekends a month, even though the drive from Austin to Houston is two-and-a-half hours each way. Reed considered it worth it. "Ray knows more about Corvettes than anyone I know," Reed says. "He was one of the first members of NCRS, and specializes in Top Flight cars. He's a wealth of knowledge." Reed's plan was simple: to "refurbish and detail things that don't hurt the integrity of the car." The suspension was completely disassembled and detailed, a task Reed figures took 200-300 hours. The frame was cleaned down to the paint marks, which were then photographed to record their exact composition. The frame was then buffed before the marks were reapplied.

Reed had saved the original parts that had failed over the years, like the water pump, the master cylinder, and the air conditioning compressor, carefully wrapping them and putting them in a trunk. Ray returned these components to working condition and re-installed them, along with the original shock absorbers. The interior was "gutted," as Reed puts it, then everything was cleaned and checked for proper fit before being reassembled. The gauges were also disassembled and cleaned. Everything else that could be detailed was, but Reed cautions that it's going to far to call this a "restoration."

"It was put back the same as it was off the assembly line," Reed comments. "It's never been off the frame. It may look better that way, but it would hurt the car's value. It's an original car that's been very well detailed." Given that this 32-year-old piece of history is almost entirely original--right down to the paint, upholstery, and those previously mentioned refurbished original parts, we'd tend to agree. In any case, all that work paid off, as the car won the prestigious NCRS Top Flight award in its first try at the NCRS Mardi Gras Regional meet in Baton Rouge. This was followed by a second Top Flight at the 2001 NCRS National Meet, where, as Reed tells us, the judging is even tougher.

The car's original owner is equally impressed. "It's really fixed up as good as it can be," Alan Bean declares, having seen the car at the Johnson Space Center's "Need for Speed" exhibit. "It looks better than when I had it. It's a beautiful car." As for the value of the car beyond it's looks and Top Flight condition, that's a subjective issue. Though others may not agree, Danny Reed's position is clear: "To me, it's a piece of history, and it's priceless." Looking back on the incredible events of which this Corvette was a part, we think that's just about right.

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The logo on Alan Bean's Stingray indicates his position as Lunar Module Pilot on Apollo 12, the second moon landing.

The idea for the unique "wing" graphics on the three AstroVettes was devised by the three Apollo 12 astronauts as a show of solidarity.

Here's two high-performance vehicles from 1969: a big-block Corvette, and a Saturn V rocket like the one that sent Apollo 12 to the moon.

The Apollo 12 crew: Pete Conrad Jr., Dick Gordon Jr., and Alan Bean, completed man's second lunar landing in November 1969. Dollie Cole's photo, in our opinion, captures the spirit of an age the likes of which we may never see again.

The stock L36 powerplant packs a healthy 390-horse punch.

The interior has been disassembled and painstakingly cleaned, but it's all original.

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