#5864 - 12/10/2205:57 PMAstronauts & Their Corvettes
Joined: Dec 2000 Posts: 5,175teamzr1 Owner - Pays the bills
teamzr1 Owner - Pays the bills Lives in Engine Bay
Joined: Dec 2000
Cape Canaveral was a filthy place. It was the last resort of resort towns, with locals who lived in squalid square houses and fended off the bleaching sun and ravenous fire ants every day. The beach was barely 300 feet wide at high tide and hard as cement.
“The Cape,” as it became known, was a dirty outpost of motels, sand fleas and above-ground septic tanks. There really wasn’t much of a reason to visit if you could afford to vacation in Miami or Key West, unless you were an astronaut.
In the 1960s, The Cape became the sandy, sun-drenched playground for America’s newly famous breed of pilots. And it wasn’t long before they turned its miles of barren black tarmac into strips for booze-fuelled races, dodging oncoming cars and spinning out onto the shoulders when your luck ran out.
As Tom Wolfe laid out in his epic The Right Stuff, these guys were already driving the fastest cars they could buy with their meager Air Force salaries. Mostly these were British sports cars like Triumphs, but there was a discernible propensity among some of these wannabe-space-pilots to buy up used 1950s Chevrolet Corvettes, too. They were fast, affordable, and gave them the sense of danger they so badly craved when they weren’t undergoing their rigorous training. In 1961 when Alan Shepard became the first American in space, he was given a brand-new 1962 Chevrolet Corvette as a gift upon his return.
GM’s official involvement may have ended there if it hadn’t been for a certain Florida car salesman named Jim Rathmann. Besides owning a Chevrolet dealership, Rathmann was an accomplished racing driver, having won the 1960 Indianapolis 500 and finishing second place at Indy three times. The budding astronauts would frequent his dealership for cars or tuning, and in the process got to know him and his prodigious driving abilities.
Somehow, GM boss Ed Cole got wind of this and wanted to make sure America’s astronaut celebrities were seen driving Chevys. So Rathmann set up leases where basically astronauts could lease any new Chevrolet for free. Unsurprisingly, Alan Shepard, Gordon Cooper, Buzz Aldrin and Gus Grissom chose to lease Corvettes. Grissom’s car was equipped with wide magnesium wheels and fender flares to house them.
The specs chosen on their cars reveals their desire to have the hottest thing around. Nearly all the astronauts ordered their cars with gnarly big-block engines, and every single one was equipped with a four-speed manual.
Stories abound of these guys hopping into their Corvettes after a night of drinking and setting the 427s and 454s loose along the sandy highways of The Cape, chasing each other and the ever-elusive thrill of speed and danger.
In 1969 Alan Bean, Charles “Pete” Conrad, and Richard Gordon all ordered what would become the most famous astronaut Corvettes of all. Painted gold and black to match their lunar module spacecraft, and bedecked with triple-carb 427s, this trio of Corvettes was featured in many press photos and came to define the pilots and their cars. Today, only the Alan Bean car survives, and the fate of the other two is unknown.
When Alan Shepard became the first American in space, he was given a brand-new 1962 Corvette upon his return Not all, it must be said, chose Corvettes. Per Wolfe’s book, Wally Shirra graduated from an Austin-Healey to a Maserati; and Scott Carpenter got his hands on an honest-to-goodness Shelby Cobra. All of them were determined to prove to each other and to Rathmann they were hot-shoe drivers capable of taming these overpowered beasts.
And amidst all this horsepower, gasoline and fury we have John Glenn. While all his compatriots commuted in hotted-up sports cars, Glenn trundled back and forth in a diminutive NSU Prinz, a car which had maybe one-tenth the horsepower of the others’ Corvettes.
Glenn was unlike the other astronauts. Less given to boozing, partying and racing, he preferred long jogs on the beach at dawn instead. When Chevrolet offered him the free lease deal, he used it to buy a ho-hum station wagon for his family. The others ribbed him constantly for his lack of automotive chutzpah, and one day as they walked into training, they found that someone had written on the chalkboard:
DEFINITION OF A SPORTS CAR: A HEDGE AGAINST THE MALE MENOPAUSE.
Though Glenn may not have liked it, the gravy train of free Corvettes rolled until 1971, when GM officially ended the program. Al Worden’s 1971 454 Corvette coupe still survives with its original weathered paint. Today, modern ethics rules mean that a similar $1 lease program couldn’t come back for modern astronauts. But GM did half-jokingly bring the program back for retired astronauts, to whom NASA ethics policy would no longer apply. Will we see tons of retired astronauts in Corvettes? It’s probable. Retired astronaut Scott Kelly has owned several Corvettes, including a C7.
It must also be said the Corvette-owning astronauts circle is a bit of a boys’ club. Breaking that up a bit is Betty Skelton and her 1965 Corvette convertible. Calling Skelton “a pilot” would be a bit like calling Lance Armstrong “a cyclist.”
An aerobatics pilot, one of her more famous tricks was cutting a ribbon strung between two fishing poles with her propeller while flying 10 feet above the ground upside-down. She was also the first woman to pilot a jet-car to 300 mph, and set three other land-speed records.
In 1959, she underwent all the physical and skills testing required of Mercury VII astronauts. She dazzled them with her pilot skills and was given an honorary set of wings from the Navy. But when she told NASA they should seriously consider women astronauts, they laughed. She never did dice it up with Bean, Shephard and the others in their Corvettes, but no doubt would have been as wild as any behind the wheel.