While we here at Hobby Car Corvettes love all things Corvette, vintage is our preference by a long shot. We love the history and the stories that come with a gently loved Corvette from yesteryear. The story of the NASA Astronauts and the Corvettes is one of the most unique, and one of our favorites, and we will share that with you here.
THE START OF A BEAUTIFUL FRIENDSHIP
Being a NASA astronaut, one is afforded experiences unimaginable to us here, tethered to earth. The technology, the speed, the glamour, the rush—all evoke unshakable moments of awe and bouts of adrenaline. It only makes sense that the few fortunate and brave members of NASA’s space-bound crews, would want an equally thrilling means of transportation here on earth.
The first documented astronaut to show up to space training in a Chevy Corvette was Alan Shepard, in 1959. Though at the time it may have seemed a minor event, it would become a cherished piece of Corvette history.
In 1962, to thank Alan Shepard for his bravery, after becoming the first American in space, GM gifted him with a special 1962 Corvette. This exchange led to a famous relationship between NASA astronauts and Corvettes.
JIM RATHMANN’S CHEVROLET OFFER FOR ASTRONAUTS
A common misunderstanding is that GM as a whole, was solely responsible for forging this relationship with NASA’s astronauts. But the true man behind the mission, was former Indy 500 winner, Jim Rathmann, who owned a Chevrolet dealership in Melbourne, Florida. His proximity to the “Space Coast”—NASA’s launch site—made for a brilliant and unique opportunity.
With enthusiastic permission from Ed Cole, president of General Motors at the time, Rathmann began offering astronauts a Corvette plan in which they were given the use of any Chevrolet automobile for a year, for the low, low price of one whole dollar! The only reason the vehicles were not offered for free, is that as government employees, the astronauts could not accept gifts—and a free car would be quite the gift. So Rathmann attached a price tag so it would not be a gift, and that price tag was one dollar. Way to stick it to the system.
Though the deal was not Corvette specific, it was the choice of most of the astronauts. After the year was up, they would turn in their vehicle and choose another.
Rathmann’s plan was both a creative marketing tactic and a way to honor the brave men who risked their lives to further the advancement of space exploration. A former racecar driver, Rathmann was not a stranger to the need for speed and excitement, and he knew that is what the astronauts craved as well. He knew NASA would provide this fix in space, but he wanted to give them something that would get them as close to that “3…2…1… blast off” experience as possible.
THE APOLLO 12 ASTROVETTES
Three of the most memorable and recognizable astronaut owned Corvettes, are the three matching Vettes, designed and chosen by the crew of the Apollo 12 flight.
In 1969, the flight crew for the Apollo 12 mission consisted of Alan Bean, Richard “Dick” Gordon, and Charles “Pete” Conrad. All former Navy men, this crew formed a special bond. These men were captivated by the Corvette, and they knew they wanted to do something noteworthy with their Chevrolet offer.
The three astronauts opted to order matching custom 390-hp 427 Stingray coupes, adorned in a black on gold color scheme, primarily designed by Bean himself. Alex Tremulis, renowned industrial and automotive designer, produced the design for the black “wings” on the Corvette, that would accompany the gold paint job. The crew approved of the wing design.
The three Apollo 12 Corvettes featured 390-hp, 427 Turbo-Jet V-8, four-speed wide-range transmission, PosiTraction 3.08 rear axle, air-conditioning, black vinyl interior, and special wheel covers.
Even though the men eagerly chose to have all their Corvettes “exactly the same”, when it came down to it, they decided they should have at least one differentiating feature. They opted to use a color coding system they used on the spacecraft, using the colors red, white, and blue. They designed a rectangular plaque that consisted of these 3 colors, and on each car put their space crew titles in the block of the color that was used to mark their stuff on the spacecraft. Alex Bean has the letters ‘LMP’ for lunar module pilot in his blue block, Pete had the letters ‘CDR’ for commander in his red block, and Dick had the letters ‘CMP’ for command module pilot in his white block.
The three matching, gold and black winged Vettes the Apollo 12 crew drove for one year, became known as the AstroVettes. Of the three Corvettes, after being returned, Gordon’s and Conrad’s have since disappeared. But due to the keen eye of an avid Vette enthusiast, Danny Reed, Bean’s Corvette is in good hands and on occasion can be seen on display at Corvette and NASA locations and events. Reed has even reunited Bean with the Corvette. Bean says of the cherished AstroVette, “He keeps the car real nice—better than when I owned it.”
Though there is of course less NASA action today, the relationship formed between NASA and the Corvette in the 1960s and 1970s, lives on.
Currently, there is a NASA exhibit at the National Corvette Museum entitled From Gas Station to Space Station. This exhibit was curated to commemorate the 50 year anniversary on July 20, 2019 of Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon. We were able to see the display for ourselves on our most recent visit to the museum in June. We were able to lay our eyes on some of the original NASA corvettes, as well as real artifacts from the space missions. We also enjoyed learning about Betty Skelton, who was included in the display (along with her 1965 corvette), although she was’t actually an astronaut. She’s certainly worth a Google search to learn some more about her! This display was hands-down our favorite display at the museum to date!
thank you for stopping by here at Hobby Car Corvettes. We may not have a used Corvette previously owned by an astronaut to offer you, but we have many beautiful and powerful machines in our showroom, that could complete your collection. Reach out today to arrange a visit, and find your perfect Vette.