From The Right Stuff to Apollo 13, tales of astronauts racing their Corvettes have become the stuff of American legend. The connection grew stronger during the weekend as retired astronauts took to the streets of Cocoa Beach, Florida in the iconic cars to celebrate 50 years since Alan Shepard became the first American in space.
Though many of the astronauts’ personal vehicles are long gone, each rode in a borrowed Corvette representing the era when they flew. For instance, 86-year-old Mercury 7 astronaut Scott Carpenter rode in a 1958 ‘Vette. The parade began at 9:34 a.m., the same time that Alan Shepard lifted off in the Freedom 7 mission.
The longstanding bond between man and machine was part performance, part product placement. Shepard, who died of leukemia in 1998 and owned ten Corvettes during his lifetime, brought his ‘57 with him to Florida when he entered NASA training. Enthusiasm for the car grew among the close-knit group of astronauts.
“All of the astronauts were test pilots back then,” said John T.R. Dillon III, a safety engineer at the Kennedy Space Center and member of the Cape Kennedy Corvette Club. “They flew performance aircraft and they moved into performance cars with a well-honed appreciation for handling, acceleration and so forth.”
When Shepard returned to earth, General Motors president Edward N. Cole presented him with a customized white 1962 Corvette, shown above. After subsequent flights, Florida dealer Jim Rathmann offered new Corvettes to all the Mercury 7 astronauts. They all accepted, but for John Glenn, who chose a Chevy wagon instead.
The Corvette connection continued throughout the 1960s and ’70s. Shepard and fellow astronaut Gus Grissom famously raced increasingly powerful Corvettes until Grissom’s death in the Apollo 1 program. In 1971, the Apollo 12 astronauts were criticized for appearing next to their matching, customized Corvettes in a Life magazine photo that NASA feared looked like product endorsement. The Apollo 15 crew also posed for a photo with matching red, white and blue Corvettes alongside a Lunar Rover Vehicle.
On Saturday, Carpenter was driven by Eric Martin. Martin grew up near the launch site and like many locals remembers the launches, the astronauts and their cars. “I’ve been polishing and waxing my car for three days,” he told Florida Today. “I remember my dad taking me and my brother to parades when Apollo 11 came through here.”
The 1962 issue of Corvette News (Vol .5, No. 1) featured Alan B. Shepard with a white, 1962 Corvette coupe featuring a customized, “space-age” interior. That’s the GM Design Center in Warren, Michigan, in the background. (General Motors / Campbell-Ewald)
Apollo 12 astronauts Charles ‘Pete’ Conrad Jr., Richard Francis Gordon Jr. and Alan LaVern Bean (from left) with their 1969 Corvette Stingray coupes. The coupes features a 390 horsepower 427 cubic inch V8. Bean designed the black-accented Riverside Gold color scheme. (Photo: Ralph Morse/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images via General Motors)
Via Wired Autopia: http://www.wired.com/autopia/