Throughout the years, certain aspects of American culture have become indelibly ingrained into the very fabric of our nation’s heritage. Few can argue that the Chevrolet Corvette is not worthy of its rightful spot among such notable representations of pure American ingenuity.
Chevrolet has sought to embrace this image, with the passing of subsequent decades. The advent of several patriotic-themed marketing campaigns have further cemented this connection, with the company’s “Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie, and Chevrolet” advertisement perhaps being the most memorable.
However, Chevrolet has reciprocated this level of enthusiasm toward all things Americana, sharing in the level of pride that is felt by all who love this land. One of the most notable representations of this proactive approach to patriotic pride comes in the form of Chevrolet’s long-standing love for NASA, and the United States Space Program.
This love has always appeared mutual, as many of the space program’s astronauts have been quite fond of pure American performance, most notably in the form of the Corvette. GM was quick to recognize this fact, and a program was enacted to ensure that all who went to space were offered the opportunity to sit behind the wheel of their Earthly ride of choice.
A Relationship Solidified
Even before Alan Shepard became the first American in space, he was already a tried and true Corvette enthusiast. Shepard purchased his first Corvette, a used 1953 model, from his father-in-law in 1954. Then in 1959, after being assigned to NASA’s Mercury program, Shepard bought yet another Corvette. This time his purchase came in the form of a used 1957 model.
Shepard also gained quite the reputation around Langley Air Force Base for his love toward everything that the Corvette had to offer. Many have recalled Shepard’s occasional sprints down the base’s runway, as he attempted to showcase his favorite ride’s performance qualities.
Upon returning from his historic 1961 trek to space, Shepard was gifted a brand new, white 1962 Corvette by General Motors. Though this was indeed a fine gesture shown to Shepard for his heroics, other astronauts of the day had yet to jump on the Corvette band-wagon.
It was Jim Rathmann, a Florida Chevrolet dealership owner and winner of the 1960 Indianapolis 500, that can be credited with forever bonding NASA and the Corvette together. Rathmann was known for his serious business sense, and as such, knew that there were few ways to as successfully market the Corvette than to purvey the image that the Corvette was an Astronaut’s vehicle of choice.
With GM’s approval, Rathmann offered all Mercury astronauts their choice of any Chevrolet car for a lease price of only $1 per year. In total, six of the Mercury astronauts took Rathmann up on his offer, and the Corvette’s legacy as the transportation of choice for NASA’s elite was born.
Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, and Gordon Cooper were known to frequently race their Corvettes along the flat beaches of Cape Canaveral, and a little friendly competition throughout the city’s streets wasn’t necessarily out of the question either. The press even took note of the crew’s Corvette powered shenanigans, and they did not hesitate to report on such matters when the opportunity to do so arose.
The Love Affair Continues
General Motors and Jim Rathmann’s pre-standing $1 per year Corvette lease agreement continued as the years passed, and so did the astronauts’ love affair with the cars themselves. In fact, it almost became a right of passage of sorts, for astronauts to claim their Corvette and join the fraternity of space traveling, Vette owners,
The list of astronauts in the 1960s and 70s who were also Corvette owners was quite extensive, and several notable stories came out of this time period, many of which pertained to American heroes enjoying American muscle. However, in at least one case, the perils of such a high-risk line of work tragically cut this enjoyment short.
Gus Grissom, much like Shepard, had gained quite the reputation as a dedicated Corvette enthusiast. By 1967, the Apollo space program was in its infancy, with the ultimate goal of putting an American on the Moon. With plans already underway for the initiation of the Apollo 1 space flight, Grissom took delivery of a brand new Lynndale Blue, 1967 convertible Sting Ray.
Unfortunately, Grissom never received the opportunity to fully enjoy his latest Corvette, as he perished during a flight simulation exercise on January 27, 1967, when the flight’s mission command module caught fire. His Sting Ray was later returned to Jim Rathmann, and eventually found its way into a private collection.
As the Apollo space program recovered and moved forward from this early tragedy, several of the program’s other astronauts continued to take part in the Corvette lease program, with perhaps the most recognizable being the first man to walk on the moon, Neil Armstrong. Armstrong made no secret of his fascination with the Corvette, and owned several throughout the years. He could often be seen driving his Marina Blue 1967 Corvette, which was later sold to a NASA staffer.
The crew of the Apollo 12 mission were also known for making the most out of Jim Rathman’s $1 per year lease plan. In fact, they likely owned three of the most easily recognizable Astronaut Era Corvettes. The three 1969, 427 Sting Ray Coupes were often referred to as “‘Astrovettes”, and featured Riverside Gold paint schemes with Black-winged accents. Each of these Corvettes also featured red, white, and blue insignia that displayed the initials of that individual astronaut’s position for the flight.
Apollo 13 Commander, Jim Lovell, frequently drove a Corvette as well. A depiction of this fondness for the Corvette can even be seen in Tom Hanks’ portrayal of Lovell, in the 1995 movie Apollo 13. Though Hanks drives a red Corvette in the movie, Lovell insists that the Corvette which he drove during this era was actually blue in color.
In what would be among the last Corvettes furnished through the Jim Rathmann Chevrolet lease program, Apollo 15 astronauts James Irwin, Alfred Worden, and David Scott ordered 1971 Corvettes, each in a different variance of a patriotic color scheme.
Commander Dave Scott’s Corvette was Bridgehampton Blue with red and white stripes, Lunar Module Pilot Jim Irwin’s car featured a Mille Miglia Red, with blue and white striped exterior, and Command Module Pilot Alfred Worden’s 71’ Coupe was painted Classic White, with red and blue stripes. TIME Magazine once featured a photo of the three Corvettes parked together in a staggered formation, with a training version of the moon rover, that was to be used in the mission, situated in the foreground.
The Corvette’s space Aged Legacy
Though the Astronaut centered, $1 lease program drew to an eventual end around the time of the final Apollo mission, the Corvette’s legacy as the performance car of choice for our celestial heroes has forever been cemented. Currently retired Astronauts, Scott Kelly, and Mae Jemison, both attended the 2019 introduction of the 2020 Corvette, ushering in the eighth decade of association between the true American sports car, and those who explore the final frontier on our nation’s behalf.