Corvette Corner: NASA Astronauts car of choice – Chevrolet Corvette

July 20, 2019 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the first landing of the Apollo 11 Lunar Module on the moon when Astronaut Neil Armstrong, watched on television by an estimated 530 million people on earth, took his “…one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind” and became the first man to set foot on the lunar surface. The first manned lunar landing was the climax of a manned journey into space that began eight years earlier, which carried the world’s imagination to unfathomable new heights. America’s astronauts, the public faces of the space program, became our heroes.

Heroes Drive Corvettes – GM Special Lease Program

The first seven astronauts selected for the Mercury program were all experienced jet jockeys or test pilots accustomed to exploring their limits on a regular basis and one, Alan Shepard, was already on his second Corvette, a 1957, when he signed on. It stands to reason that anyone adventurous enough to become an astronaut would prefer the excitement of a Corvette for his earth-bound transportation.

Corvette’s first official introduction to America’s astronauts came shortly after Alan Shepard became the first American into space with his sub-orbital flight on May 5, 1961. Ed Cole, then president of General Motors, presented Alan with a 1962 Corvette having a deluxe interior created under the auspices of GM design chief Bill Mitchell, as a reward for being the first astronaut aloft in America’s space program. Now we all know that GM normally does not give away cars for any reason and, apparently, there were some among GM’s hierarchy who believed Cole’s decision set a bad precedent for the company. In addition, the gift appeared to contravene the astronauts’ agreements with NASA prohibiting them from making any product endorsements. To smooth over all of the ruffled feathers at GM and NASA, it was decided that Shepard’s gift would be a one-time-only event and would not happen again.

Jim Rathmann, winner of the 1960 Indy 500, who owned a Chevrolet-Cadillac dealership in Melbourne, Florida, near NASA’s launch site and who became friends with astronauts and high-performance car guys Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom, is credited with coming up with a solution for putting the astronauts in Corvettes without treading on anyone’s toes at GM or NASA. Jim, along with Ed Cole, came up with a special GM lease program that allowed astronauts to lease up to two Chevrolet cars per year for $1 each. All of the original seven Mercury astronauts selected a family car and all but one also chose a Corvette for their personal transportation. John Glenn was the sole astronaut who did not opt for a Corvette.

Collecting Astronaut Corvettes – Looking for a Needle in a Haystack

After the astronauts turned-in their Corvettes at the end of the leases, the cars were re-sold through various outlets, such as General Motors’ financial arm, General Motors Acceptance Corporation (GMAC). Many of the Corvettes were in stock condition and appearance, and were not officially advertised as having been previously driven by astronauts. As they appeared on a used car lot or in a sale advertisement, there was nothing to visually indicate to a potential buyer that they were, in fact, very rare cars. Even collectors who knew about the special lease program would have difficulty identifying the cars without thorough research and inspection.

The only astronaut Corvettes having special paint schemes were those of astronauts Pete Conrad, Dick Gordon, and Alan Bean of Apollo 12, and those of astronauts David Scott, Jim Irwin, and Alfred Worden of Apollo 15. All of the Apollo 12 Corvettes had a unique custom paint scheme created by noted industrial designer Alex Tremulis and Alan Bean with black “wings” covering the upper rear quarter panels and extending across the fixed portion of the T-Top roofs. The remainder of each of the cars was painted in standard Corvette Riverside Gold. The Apollo 12 crew was the only crew to have Corvettes with identical custom paint schemes.

The Apollo 15 Corvettes all had red, white, and blue paint schemes, but each car was different. Mission Commander Dave Scott’s Corvette was Bridgehampton Blue with red and white stripes; Lunar Module Pilot Jim Irwin’s Corvette was Mille Miglia Red with blue and white stripes; and Command Module Pilot Alfred Worden’s car was Classic White with red and blue stripes. But, as we all know, any paint scheme can be duplicated on a regular Corvette to disguise it as an astronaut Corvette. It takes a sharp eye and a detailed knowledge of the specifics of each astronaut Corvette to be able to pick it out in a used car lot. Anyone seeking out astronaut Corvettes needs to be a great detective, one with the observational skills of Sherlock Holmes.

The Astronaut Corvette Detective – Danny Reed

When it comes to finding astronauts’ Corvettes, Danny Reed, an avid Corvette collector and restorer in Austin, Texas, may indeed be a modern-day Sherlock Holmes. Reed, a National Corvette Restorer’s Society (NCRS) member, currently owns three documented astronaut Corvettes—a 1969 Corvette coupe that was driven by Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean; a white 1971 Corvette coupe formerly driven by Apollo 15 astronaut Alfred Worden; and a blue 1971 Corvette coupe driven by Apollo 15 Mission Commander David Scott. In addition to astronaut Corvettes, Danny also has a 1962 Corvette that formerly belonged to a NASA engineer and a 1964 Corvette convertible in his collection. He restored both the ’62 and ’64 Corvettes to Duntov Award-winning NCRS standards.

Like many of us of a certain age, Danny Reed was fascinated by NASA’s manned space program and back in the day he religiously followed all of the latest news reports and the many publicity articles that primarily appeared in Life magazine. It was one of the many photos from Life magazine stored in Reed’s memory banks that led to the discovery of his first astronaut Corvette, Alan Bean’s ’69.

Apollo 12 Astronaut Alan Bean’s 1969 Corvette

Reed’s astronaut Corvette odyssey began in 1971 when he happened to be driving by a GMAC resale lot for General Motors’ cars in Austin, Texas. He spotted a gold C3 Corvette with a unique black custom trim paint job that he recognized as a Corvette belonging to the Apollo 12 crew. He immediately pulled into the lot and found out that the car was being sold via a closed bid auction. This was his chance to own an astronaut Corvette! After giving the matter careful consideration, Danny added a modest amount to the book value of a regular 1969 Corvette coupe and mailed in his bid. He waited on pins and needles for the auction results, but when they finally arrived in the mail, his excitement was quickly crushed—his bid was only the second highest. Someone else had won the Apollo 12 Corvette.

Sometimes fate has a way of rewarding those who truly believe. Reed received another letter from GMAC about six weeks later informing him that the highest bidder could not come up with the money and that he, Danny Reed, was now declared the auction winner. By the narrowest of margins he had achieved his objective. His bid was only $30 higher than the closest other bid. Danny Reed’s pride and joy is now fully restored to original standards and is the only Corvette to receive the NCRS Duntov Award of Excellence and the NCRS American Heritage Award.

Apollo 15 Astronaut Alfred Worden’s 1971 Corvette

To be a successful collector of rare artifacts, such as astronaut’s Corvettes, you need a network of friends to keep their ears and eyes open to find leads for you. Danny Reed has his network of Corvette enthusiasts and one of his friends is Carl Sanger. In 2017 Danny was at a large Corvette event at the Circuit of the Americas race track near Austin, Texas, when he received an email from Carl forwarding him a Craigslist ad for a 1971 Corvette that was “once owned by an astronaut.” Danny immediately looked up the location of the seller on his cell phone and discovered it was a used car lot near the entrance to the race track!

Danny quickly arranged for an inspection of the car, which confirmed his suspicion that the white coupe with red and blue stripes was the one driven by Apollo 15’s Alfred Worden. This time there was no need to go through the stress of an auction—Danny put down a deposit and closed on the purchase of the car on July 20, 2017, the 48th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. The Worden car sat out in an open field for many years and still wears its weathered patina. When asked about restoring the car, Danny says, “For now, I guess I’ll show it as a barn find and decide down the road. After all, I’m blessed to have one of each! Trust me, it doesn’t get any better than that.”

Apollo 15 Astronaut David Scott’s 1971 Corvette

In 2019, Danny Reed’s own diligent hard work paid off with another astronaut Corvette—this time a 1971 Corvette previously driven by Apollo 15 astronaut David Scott. The blue Corvette coupe with red and white stripes was found in Melbourne, Florida, not too far from the Apollo launch site. Ron Calloway purchased the car in October of 1971 shortly after Dave Scott turned it in to Rathmann Chevrolet. The engine, paint and interior of the unrestored Corvette were all in excellent condition after only covering 42,477 original miles.

Reed tracked down Scott’s Corvette when his diligent online searching revealed an October 1988 article from the Orlando Sentinel about a parade to honor the astronauts of the space shuttle Discovery. Ron Calloway’s car was to participate in the parade and the article mentioned this car was once driven by astronaut David Scott. With this bait, Reed redoubled his searching efforts and eventually emailed a Valerie Bean (no relation to astronaut Alan Bean) about her grandfather who owned an astronaut Corvette. As it turned out, Ron Calloway was Valerie Bean’s grandfather and Valerie was kind enough to give Reed Ron Calloway’s contact information.

Following several months of emails and phone calls, Danny Reed met with Ron at his house in Florida in March of 2019 and Danny closed the deal on the car after taking “about an hour” to verify the numbers and condition of the car. Scott’s Corvette was in such excellent condition, Danny immediately arranged for the car to be transported to the National Corvette Museum (NCM) to join Reed’s other two astronaut Corvettes on display.

National Corvette Museum Exhibit: From Gas Station to Space Station

The National Corvette Museum has Reed’s three astronaut Corvettes in their exhibit From Gas Station to Space Station” celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Their exhibit also includes a 1968 Corvette convertible that belonged to astronaut Alan Shepard. Alan was the only original Mercury 7 astronaut to later walk on the moon with Apollo 14.

In our video, NCM Curator Derek Moore gives us a quick review of Reed’s two Apollo 15 Corvettes and asks the question: “Where is the red Corvette?” We’d like to thank the NCM for permission to use their video.

We salute Danny Reed for taking the initiative to find and preserve these rare Corvettes and keeping alive the special memories for all of us whose imaginations were captured by one of America’s greatest journeys.

 

SOURCES:

Email correspondence with Danny Reed

Spaceflight Insider – https://www.spaceflightinsider.com/space-flight-history/our-spaceflight-heritage-the-shocking-launch-of-apollo-12/

Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Apollo_missions

Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_12

Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_15

Quora – https://www.quora.com/Did-Jim-Rathmann-really-lease-Corvettes-to-astronauts-for-1-00-during-the-early-days-of-the-space-program

Jalopnik – https://jalopnik.com/why-americas-first-astronauts-all-drove-corvettes-5799011

Corvette Online – https://www.corvetteonline.com/features/editorials-opinions/astronauts-and-corvettes-just-like-mom-apple-pie-and-rock-roll/

NASA – https://nssdc.gsfc.nasa.gov/planetary/chrono_astronaut.html

NASA – https://www.nasa.gov/mission_pages/apollo/missions/apollo11.html

Super Chevy – http://www.superchevy.com/features/vet1101-1969-chevrolet-astrovette-stingray/

National Corvette Museum – https://www.corvettemuseum.org/from-gas-station-to-space-station-nasa-exhibit-opening-in-january/

 

VIDEO: [Credit: National Corvette Museum]

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