Fifty years ago this month, Alan Shepard became the first American to travel into outer space. When he returned to Earth, GM presented him with a brand new 1962 Corvette and the connection of Corvettes and Astronauts became the stuff of legends.
When Shepard reported for Space Program training in April 1959, he brought along his 1957 Corvette. He would own at least 10 Corvettes in his lifetime. His enthusiasm for the sports car was shared by several others who would train with him to become America’s first astronauts.
John T. R. Dillon III, a Safety Engineer at the Kennedy Space Center, is also a Corvette owner and member of the Cape Kennedy Corvette Club, which counted four astronauts among its original membership when it was 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.
Shortly after Shepard’s historic flight, Ed Cole presented the astronaut with a new, white, 1962 Corvette. The car had been outfitted by GM designers with a customized space-age interior. As GM did not routinely give away cars, the Corvette-astronaut connection might have become totally coincidental in the years that followed, had not Florida Chevrolet dealer Jim Rathmann stepped into the picture.
After winning the 1960 Indianapolis 500 as a professional racer, Rathmann opened a Chevrolet-Cadillac dealership in Melbourne Florida near the space center. Rathmann negotiated a special lease arrangement with Chevrolet to put astronauts into Corvettes.
Six of the Mercury astronauts would take up the special Corvette lease although John Glenn opted for a Chevy station wagon as he had a family to cart around.
Shepard and fellow Mercury astronaut Virgil “Gus” Grissom often dueled on the two-lane backtop roads that surrounded the space center. Grissom’s 1967 Corvette was specially geared and the battles between the two were also legendary.
Apollo 12 astronauts Dick Gordon, Charles Conrad and Alan Bean ordered new 1969 Corvettes through Rathmann. They asked that the identically equipped 390-hp 427 Stingray coupes be custom finished in a special black-accented Riverside Gold color scheme designed by Bean. NASA administrators reportedly worried that a photos of the space-suited Apollo 12 astronauts and their matching Corvettes in a LIFE Magazine photo could be misconstrued as a forbidden product endorsement.
Even so, another photo of a trio of American astronauts with their Corvettes would appear in LIFE, during June 1971. Apollo 15 lunar mission crewmembers Jim Irwin, Al Worden and Dave Scott had been photographed with their Corvettes and a training version of the battery-powered Lunar Rover Vehicle (LRV) they would deliver to the moon. The “moon buggy,” as it was also called, utilized a mobility system built by General Motors. The Apollo 15 crew Corvettes were each a different color…red, white and blue. Dual racing stripes on each car rounded out the American flag colors.
On May 7, 2011, 30 of America’s surviving astronauts gathered in Cocoa Beach, Florida where they participated in a parade commemorating the 50th anniversary of Shepard’s historic sub-orbital flight. Fittingly, they were driven in Corvettes representing all six design generations built since the famed sports car’s 1953 debut.
Each astronaut was provided a ride in a Corvette from the generation current at the time of their mission. Here is a video from Chevrolet showing some of the astronauts talking about their association with Corvette: