As I write this midsummer, two things have something of a grip on our culture: the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 space flight and the first manned landing on the moon, and Chevrolet’s at-long-last reveal of a production-bound, mid-engine Corvette.
On July 18, those two trends merged. Chevrolet’s live-streamed introduction of the mid-engine C8 Corvette was held at a former Marine Corps airbase in Southern California and prominently featured former astronauts Mae Jemison and Scott Kelly. GM President Mark Reuss spoke at length about the close relationship between our space pioneers and the Vette, which started with the first American in space, Alan Shepard. Shepard owned a 1957 Corvette owner prior to his Mercury launch, and he was given a brand-new, customized 1962 Corvette during the celebrations after his return.
He would be the only astronaut outright gifted a Corvette. But others got a deal nearly as sweet. Florida Chevrolet dealer (and 1960 Indy 500 winner) Jim Rathmann offered returning astronauts a yearlong lease of the Chevy of their choice for $1. Six of the Mercury astronauts took Rathmann up on the deal, and most chose Corvettes. Who better to represent the—dare I say it?—“right stuff” of America’s sports car than these brave American heroes? (John Glenn, the story goes, chose a practical station wagon instead.)
The crew of Apollo 12 ordered matching, 427-powered 1969 Corvettes in Riverside Gold with custom black-painted “wings” over the backs of the cars. The Apollo 15 crew seen here, the first to take a Lunar Rover to the moon, went with a coordinated trio of Corvettes, too. From left, lunar module pilot James Irwin, command module pilot Alfred Worden, and Commander David Scott decorated their 1971 Vettes so each had a patriotic red, white, and blue paint and stripe scheme.
The dollar lease program ended in 1971. As lease vehicles, the astronaut’s Vettes were returned to the dealership after a year and sold to the public with no mention of their space-related provenance. It would take a knowledgeable Corvette enthusiast to recognize one of these cars and rescue it for posterity.
Texas collector Danny Reed was such an enthusiast. He owns the gold and black Corvette that belonged to Apollo 12 lunar module pilot Alan Bean and Worden’s white Corvette in our photo. The gold car has been restored and has earned NCRS awards; the white one is unrestored and shows the wear incurred while it sat in a field. Both were on display at the National Corvette Museum in the months before the Apollo 11 anniversary.
Bonus Lunar Rover trivia: As bulky as it looks in this picture, the Rover folded into a 5-foot by 20-inch package for travel to the moon. It weighed just 460 pounds unloaded, 1,500 pounds with astronauts and gear, and could travel at speeds up to 8 mph via quarter-horsepower electric motors at each wheel.
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