Astronauts Helped Established the Corvette
Contributed by Ecklers, written by Dan X. McGraw
Apollo 12 astronauts (L-R) Charles ‘Pete' Conrad Jr., Richard Francis Gordon Jr., and Alan LaVern Bean with their identical 1969 Corvette Stingray coupes. The coupes features a 390-hp, 427 V8 and black-accented Riverside Gold color scheme designed by Bean. Photo by Ralph Morse / Time & Life Pictures / Getty Images. Shortly after returning from his historic flight to space in 1961, Alan Shepard got a surprise gift from General Motors — a dazzling white 1962 Chevrolet Corvette. The gift would spark a budding relationship between NASA astronauts and the automaker, and experts say the association helped to define the Corvette as the iconic American sports car.
Alan B. Shepard (center) with GM Styling President William L. Mitchell (left) and Chevrolet General Manager Edward N. Cole (right) with Shepard's 1962 Corvette. “In the 1960s, astronauts were the American heroes that every child idolized and every adult respected,” Corvette historian Jerry Burton told GM in a 2011 interview. “That so many of them drove Corvettes really helped establish the Corvette as America's sports car.”
But the astronauts might not have settled on the Corvette had it not been for Florida Chevrolet dealer Jim Rathmann, who also won the Indianapolis 500 in 1960. According to General Motors, Rathmann saw the astronauts as the perfect pitchmen for the sports car. He worked out an arrangement with Chevrolet that put six of the Mercury astronauts behind the wheel of a ’Vette for a single dollar. Danny Reed, who owns one of the astronaut's ’Vettes, said it made sense that they would be behind the wheel of one of America's most iconic models.
“It just fit their image,” Reed said. “What other car would they drive?” As former pilots, many of the astronauts couldn't pass up the opportunity to use the full power of the Corvette. “All of the astronauts were test pilots back then,” Kennedy Space Center safety engineer John T.R. Dillion told GM in 2011. “They flew performance aircraft, and they moved into performance cars with a well-honed appreciation for handling, acceleration and so forth.”
Shepard, who owned at least 10 Corvettes in his lifetime, reportedly loved to race his car and often dueled with fellow astronaut Virgil “Gus” Grissom. Others have said the astronauts used to speed around the Houston area in their sports cars.
By the Apollo 12 mission in 1969, Chevy had the astronauts hooked. Apollo 12 astronauts Dick Gordon, Charles “Pete” Conrad and Alan Bean ordered custom 1969 427 Stingray Corvette coupes. The black and gold cars also came with special inscriptions, such as LMP for “Lunar Module Pilot.”
The association with Corvettes began to worry NASA officials because they believed the public might construe the purchases as official endorsements by the astronauts, which was forbidden at the time, according to GM. By 1971, the astronaut's sweetheart deal for new Corvettes had all but ended, Reed said. That's when Reed stumbled upon Bean's car sitting on a GMAC lot in Austin in 1971. Bean's car had famously appeared on the cover of Life Magazine, and the unique paint job and the “LMP” detail caught the eye of Reed. “I was a space junkie,” he said. “I recognized it right away. They couldn't tell me a whole lot about it at the time.”
This 1971 photo is of the so-called AstroVette. It was owned by Alan Bean, a member of the Apollo 12 crew.
Reed eventually bought the car in an auction after the original high bidder couldn't come up with the cash. Reed had outbid the next highest bidder by a mere $30. It's one of three Corvettes that Reed now owns. “I think it was meant to be,” he said. “That car has had a better life than I have.”
Reed takes the so-called AstroVette around the country to help promote the space program and to get youth excited about space exploration. He said he hopes that the classic car can serve as a reminder of the glory days in space. “That car is a symbol of what they did for the world,” he said. “In my mind, they aren't properly funding NASA, and that's a big loss to me.” There is also a bit of a twist to the AstroVette. Bean's car is the only Apollo 12 Corvette to be found. Reed said fans are still searching for the two other Apollo 12 Corvettes. The vehicle identification numbers have been kept secret to ward off anyone hoping to make a clone of the AstroVette.
Plenty of people have called over the years, but no one has found it. Reed said the cars — and likely their stories — are gone forever.
“Unless it is in someone's barn, they are either repainted or wrecked,” Reed said.