The Men Who Went to the Moon Favored Corvettes
Astronauts have a long history with America's Sports Car.
Fifty years ago this coming July 20, two Americans—Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin—landed their lunar module Eagle on the moon. They were two of the 29 NASA astronauts who flew on Project Apollo, the grand finale in the challenge set forth in 1961 by President John F. Kennedy "to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the Earth." Back home, the men who completed the Apollo missions with such swagger and success were partial to one four-wheeled road rocket above all others: the Chevrolet Corvette.
To honor that comradeship of speed, the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky, is showcasing three Corvettes once owned by NASA astronauts, part of an exhibition entitled "From Gas Station to Space Station" that runs through July 30. A friend of mine owns two of the "Astrovettes" on display, one of which I've actually driven.
Alan Shepard's '68 Stingray convertible is there. The first American in space and, later, commander of Apollo 14 (he performed the famous golf shot on the moon), Shepard was a longtime Vette fanatic. Soon after his pioneering Mercury spaceflight on May 5, 1961, GM president Ed Cole gifted him with a gleaming new '62 Corvette. Naturally, most of the other six "Original Seven" Mercury astronauts—and many of the new arrivals NASA was adding for the Gemini and Apollo programs—wanted Corvettes, too. In stepped former Indy 500 winner Jim Rathmann, owner of a Chevy dealership near Cape Canaveral, Florida, who saw the space-hero branding potential and helped create a special lease program in which astronauts could drive a new Corvette every year for the sky-high sum of $1.
Far cooler than Shepard's '68 is the 1969 Corvette formerly owned by Alan Bean. Along with commander Pete Conrad, Bean walked on the moon as part of Apollo 12. All three members of the crew—including command module pilot Dick Gordon—drove matching Vettes painted in a black-on-gold "wings" scheme created by famed industrial designer Alex Tremulis. When I interviewed Bean in 2013, he waxed rhapsodic about those heady days: "What could be better than being 37, training all day to go to the moon, and then when you get off work you jump in your Corvette and drive it around Cocoa Beach?"
Enter my Texas-based pal Danny Reed. In 1971, Reed—a lifelong NASA enthusiast—spotted Bean's car on a GMAC lot in Austin. He won the thing in a sealed auction for "all I could afford," $3,230. In the late 1990s, Reed had his prize restored to better-than-new condition by famed Corvette specialist Ray Repczynski. In 2013, Reed graciously let me drive the car for a MotorTrend Classic feature. To me, a NASA-obsessed kid of the 1960s who followed the missions live on TV, piloting Bean's beloved Astrovette felt like walking on the moon myself.
A year later, sharing the new-for-2014 C7 Corvette, I spent a week driving from Florida's Kennedy Space Center to the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, with legendary Apollo 7 astronaut Walt Cunningham. Thanks to Reed, who met us at JSC, Cunningham got to see his old friend Alan Bean's Astrovette up close once again. (Search "Epic Drives Ep. 25" on YouTube for a video of our trip.) Recently, Cunningham and I caught up, and he reaffirmed his Corvette fever: "The Corvette has had an amazing evolution. My first one was a 1964. The most recent Corvettes have evolved from nice-looking to wonderful performance." Cunningham, who at 87 drives a 2015 Vette, joked that he'd like to buy a new ZR1 but "the price is out of my league!"
Two years ago I got an email from Reed that started, "Art—you won't believe it." He had "stumbled across" the '71 Corvette of Apollo 15 command-module pilot Al Worden, again in Austin. He bought it on the spot. "It's almost a rust bucket," Reed told me. Yet here was another treasure. Much like Bean's, Worden's car was one of a custom-painted trio for the crew of Apollo 15; Worden's Corvette was white, commander Dave Scott had a blue one, and lunar module pilot Jim Irwin's was red. All three had red, white, and blue stripes down the hood. Thus far, Reed has done minimal restoration on the car—but it's now on display in Bowling Green for all to see.
Before his death in 2018, Bean told me about the time he let his son's friends drive his Astrovette: "Funny, really. They might not remember anything else about me, not even talk about my flying to the moon. But they remembered that I let them drive that Corvette."