You may have heard that in the 1960s, GM gave Corvettes to astronauts. That's not entirely true, though there was a connection between the Chevy sportscar and NASA jocks. Here we'll explain.
In the late 1950s, as the U.S. started revving up their space program, the earliest astronauts were recruited from military test pilots. What these men (back then it was all dudes) had in common was an appetite for risk, an addiction to thrill and fairly low military paychecks. They liked to drive fast cars, and bought what they could afford. According to Driving,
"These guys were already driving the fastest cars they could buy with their meagre Air Force salaries. Mostly these were British sports cars like Triumphs, but there was a discernible propensity among some of these wannabe-space-pilots to buy up used 1950s Chevrolet Corvettes, too. They were fast, affordable, and gave them the sense of danger they so badly craved when they weren't undergoing their rigorous training."
When early astronaut Alan Shepard reported for duty in 1959, he drove up in a 1957 Corvette. Someone at GM noticed. In 1961, Shepard became the first American to go to space* as part of Project Mercury. When he returned, GM executive Edward N. Cole gifted Shepard a brand-new 1962 Corvette with a custom "space-age" interior, according to GM.
Unsurprisingly, Shepard and his new Corvette were featured on the cover of a 1962 issue of Corvette News. GM saw a prime marketing opportunity: Get this generation of exciting new space jocks into Corvettes, and sales would explode.
The problem was that NASA had a no-gifts-for-our-guys policy. However, an ex-race-driver named Jim Rathmann figured out a workaround. Rathmann wasn't associated with NASA nor was he a GM employee; but he did own a Chevrolet-Cadillac dealership in Melbourne, Florida, near the NASA Space Center, and had become friendly with some of the astronauts. Rathmann negotiated with GM: Why not offer the astronauts a special $1-a-year lease on a Corvette?
GM agreed, and out of the seven astronauts that were part of Project Mercury, six of them took the Corvette lease deal.
The lone standout was John Glenn, who wasn't the first American to go to space, but was the first man to orbit the Earth. Glenn passed on the Corvette, instead using the Chevy connection to lease a station wagon he could haul his kids around in. And for his daily driver, he stuck with his then-current ride:
That's an NSU Prinz (not the exact one John Glenn owned, but the same car). German company NSU was a motorcycle manufacturer that had ventured into cars and was a fledgling competitor to VW. The Prinz had just two cylinders and got incredible mileage. The interior was tiny, but if there's one thing astronauts can deal with, it's being stuffed into tight spaces.
Thomas Wolfe, author of The Right Stuff, incorrectly reported that Glenn drove a Peugeot. In this letter to Wolfe, Glenn sets him straight, and explains why he opted for the Prinz:
"Just for your future records, and reprint corrections later on, the car was a PRINZ, not a Peugeot. The Prinz…got about 35-40 MPG., an important fact in those days when I drove the Arlington to Langley run once a week or so, all 180 miles of it each way. With my kids being a little older than some of the others at that time, I was already concerned about their college $, so the Prinz seemed like a good idea."
Astronauts are still jocks, and Glenn's Corvette-driving buddies regularly roasted him for tooling around in the Prinz. But as the story goes, "one day as they walked into training, they found that someone had written on the chalkboard: DEFINITION OF A SPORTS CAR: A HEDGE AGAINST THE MALE MENOPAUSE."
The unofficial Corvette/astronaut leasing program ended in 1971, presumably as ethics rules were stiffened.
NSU was acquired by Volkswagen in 1969, and eventually morphed into Audi.
*Shepard was the first American in space, but the Soviet Union's Yuri Gagarin was the first human in space. He didn't get a Corvette, though in 1965 the French government gifted him a Matra-Djet, a sportscar by French automaker René Bonnet.
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