Alan Shepard showed up to space training in 1959 driving his '57 Chevy Corvette. After becoming the first American in space 50 years ago this very day, GM handed over the keys to a special 1962 Corvette as thanks for his bravery. And thus began a love affair between Astronauts and Corvettes.
Though we must credit Shepard with being the first astronaut we know of to own a Corvette, former Indy 500 winner and GM dealer Jim Rathmann deserved credit for making sure the guys with The Right Stuff all drove the same car. With a Caddilac-Corvette dealership close to the Space Center in Florida, Rathmann offered astronauts "special" lease terms.
According to GM, six of the Mercury astronauts took advantage of the arrangement and drove out with Corvettes. Shepard and Virgil "Gus" Grissom famously dueled in their Corvettes, with Grissom upgrading his '67 with faster gearing and room for wider racing tires.
In 1969, Apollo 12 astronauts Dick Gordon, Charles Conrad, and Alan Bean were so smitten with the 'Vette they all ordered custom 390-hp 427 Stingray coupes made out with a gold-on-black color scheme designed by Bean himself.
NASA worried photos of them in the cars would serve as an official endorsement, and rightly so. The image of the three of them atop their Corvettes just makes you want to climb into one, even today.
The association with astronauts was further strengthened by Tom Wolfe's book "The Right Stuff" and in films like Apollo 13 and Terms of Endearment. Even James T. Kirk drives a '65 Corvette in the latest Star Trek movie.
Despite the help of a local dealer, the astronauts of the era would probably have still chosen the American vehicles most like their own spaceships: small, fast, and hi-tech.
On Saturday, May 7th in Cocoa Beach, Florida a parade commemorating the 50th anniversary of Shepard's flight will include 30 or so surviving astronauts in Corvettes from the proper generations.
It's worth pointing out that one of the original astronauts did not drive a Corvette. John Glenn decided to get a station wagon because he had a family. We're guessing Glenn was also the designated driver for the astronaut's many outings.