The Chevrolet Corvette is something that immediately comes to mind when one thinks of America in the 1960s. Another standout moment from the 1960s in America, of course, is the NASA Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions and the first moon landing in 1969. Though most are familiar with both of these American legacies, some may not know about their interesting crossover. If you look back on the astronauts of the ‘60s and early ‘70s, you’ll find the majority of them drove Corvettes. That’s no coincidence!
Early astronauts were test pilots, so a thrilling sports car suited them nicely
According to Chevrolet, the first American in space, Alan Shepard, was ahead of the Corvette curve. Long before the lease program, Shepard showed up in his 1957 Chevrolet Corvette when he first went to Cape Canaveral for space flight training in 1959. Shepard would go on to own nearly a dozen Corvettes throughout his life.
It only makes sense that these wild airmen that were preparing to explore the vacuum frontier of space would want a fast and fun car. Shepard was, of course, proof of that. So when this thinking clicked with Indy 500 winner and Florida Chevrolet dealership owner Jim Rathmann, he concocted a special deal with GM. Rathmann and Chevrolet came to an agreement in 1961 that allowed any NASA astronaut to lease a brand new Corvette for $1.
Six of the seven Mercury program astronauts took Rathmann up on the offer, while John Glenn opted for a station wagon instead. Shepard, already a big Corvette fan, opted to get a big-block Corvette through the lease program. So did fellow astronaut and American legend Gus Grissom. Before Grissom’s untimely death in a fire aboard the Apollo I capsule, Shepard would race him down the blacktop runways of The Cape. This ultimately led to a consistent battle between the two to see who could be the fastest. Grissom even modified his final Corvette to accept wider racing tires and special gearing in 1967.
The birth of this lease program not only put Corvettes in the hands of astronauts for years to come, but it also drove sales for the Corvette and helped build its reputation as America’s sports car.
“In the 1960s, astronauts were the American heroes that every child idolized and every adult respected,” said Corvette historian and former Corvette Quarterly editor Jerry Burton.
Astronauts continued to lease Corvettes, though they did eventually return them to Chevy
Pretty soon, Corvettes were as essential a part of the astronaut lifestyle as the vehicles that took them to space.
Apollo 12 astronauts Dick Gordon, Charles Conrad, and Alan Bean custom-ordered matching 1969 Corvette Stingrays equipped with a 427 big-block V8. Additionally, they had a black-accented Riverside Gold paint scheme designed by Bean himself. Chevrolet also added a special red, white, and blue emblem to the fenders of each one. Bean’s Corvette is occasionally put on display and even made an appearance on Jay Leno’s Garage.
Apollo 15 astronauts Jim Irwin, Al Worden, and Dave Scott also ordered Corvettes to the same spec in 1971. However, instead of matching colors, they ordered one in red, one in white, and one in blue. No need to explain that one. You probably get it.
Unfortunately, though, at the end of their one dollar per year lease, the astronauts returned their Corvettes to Chevrolet. Chevrolet then sold them to the general public. Some Corvette enthusiasts have figured out the VINs of the former “Astrovettes.”
Some still remain, like Alan Bean’s 1969 Stingray mentioned above. Another example is Alan Shepard’s 1968 Corvette 427 convertible that sold at Barrett-Jackson’s Scottsdale 2022 auction for a cool $308,000. That’s 308,000 years of leasing!
When you find yourself a group of guys crazy enough to put their lives on the line in the name of science, it’s safe to assume they’ll want a high-performance car for their time spent on the ground. So, this lease program allowed these astronauts to balance work and play in the form of giving them a break from the space race. Instead, they’d do a little regular racing for a good time!