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50 Years Of Astronauts And Corvettes

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On: Mon, May 9, 2011 at 1:24PM | By: Chris Salamone

50 Years Of Astronauts And Corvettes

If you’ve read Tom Wolfe’s bestselling book The Right Stuff, sat through the 1995 Tom Hanks movie Apollo 13, or the recent Star Trek XI flick, or perhaps even claim to be privileged enough to remember the Space Race, then you no doubt have a firm grasp on the relationship between astronauts and Corvettes. Since May 5, 1961, when Alan B. Shepard became the first American to return from space flight and immediately got behind the wheel of a Chevrolet Corvette, America’s most iconic sports car and spacemen have been engaged in the throes of full on automotive passion.

In honor of Alan Shepard’s heroic mission, 30 of America’s surviving astronauts gathered in Cocoa Beach, FL on May 7th to commemorate the 50thAnniversary of Shepard’s sub-orbital flight. Recognizing a great publicity opportunity, GM made sure that all 30 would be driven in Corvettes representing all six design generations built since the model’s 1953 debut.

How did this match made in heaven come about? John T.R. Dillon III, a Safety Engineer at Kennedy Space Center and member of the Cape Kennedy Corvette Club, recently stated: “All of the astronauts were test pilots back then; they flew performance aircraft and they moved into performance cars with a well-honed appreciation for handling, acceleration, and so forth.” With that kind of appreciation, it makes sense that astronauts would reach out to pure American muscle.

But that’s not all. GM and one particular Florida Chevy dealer have nurtured and developed the relationship between man and beast. After Shepard returned from space, GM exec Edward N. Cole presented to him a white 1962 Corvette outfitted with a totally customized space-age interior. Then Chevy dealer Jim Rathmann cemented the relationship into the very foundations of American history.

Rathmann sensed early on that most astronauts had the personality type to enjoy a Corvette. In support of his theory, Rathmann brokered a special lease agreement with Chevrolet to put spacemen into Vettes on incredibly attractive terms. Ahhh… so that’s how you get the best deal, by becoming an astronaut.

Six of the Mercury astronauts took Rathmann up on his offer and the rest is the stuff of legend. “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. “That so many of them drove Corvettes really helped to establish Corvette as America’s sports car.” From past to present Corvette has been and remains to be America’s sports car, and the one preferred by astronauts. GM was smart to capitalize on 50 years of marital bliss—nothing says legendary credibility like an astronaut.

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