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The legend started in 1962 when the first American astronaut was photographed with a new Corvette.
From the beginning of the 1950s and at the same time, but not in any way in conjunction with the development of the Corvette, the American administration and its affiliated military establishment promoted the space program. American scientists, industrialists, military personnel, pilots and media networks became involved in that multibillion dollar project that turned out to be another front in the Cold War. The American public wasn't aware of the developing front until that fateful day on October 4, 1957.
Americans were caught off guard, hearing the news that the USSR launched Sputnik 1 into space. That immediately began a new era in world politics. Another bombshell landed on April 21, 1961 when Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first man to travel to space in the Vostok 1 space craft. Only two weeks later on May 5, following a few costly delays, American astronaut, and proud owner of at least 10 Corvettes during his lifetime, Alan B. Shepard, Jr. became the first American to travel to outer space. On May 25, 1961 President Kennedy delivered his famous speech of landing a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
The space race was officially opened and the Corvette would benefit from it. "When I was a kid, Corvette was the thing," said former astronaut Joe McBride in a gathering to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Shepard's sub-orbital flight. "Certainly when I got to the Navy all the Navy pilots had Corvettes, and I wanted to be like all the Navy pilots. At that time young astronauts were getting Corvettes, and I wanted to be one of them one of these days. Why not? It's happening. Still the Corvette is the dream car of every astronaut." General Motors has clearly taken full advantage of celebrating the longstanding relationship between astronauts and the Corvette.
And of course GM executives liked more than anything else the front cover of the "Corvette News" (Vol. No. 1), in which Shepard was photographed sitting nonchalantly on the front wing of the C1 he was awarded by the company. Shepard reportedly brought along his 1957 Corvette (his first C1) when he reported for astronaut training in April, 1959. The Cape Kennedy Corvette Club was later founded in 1967 and one of its founding members was John R.T. A. Dillon III, a safety engineer at Kennedy Space Center. "All of the astronauts were test pilots back then," he reminisced.
"They flew performance aircraft and they moved into performance cars with a well-honed appreciation for handling, acceleration and so forth." In 1961, Jim Rathmann, an Indy 500 winner, opened a Chevrolet-Cadillac dealership near the space center and soon negotiated lease arrangements with Chevrolet to put the astronauts into the sports car. Six of the Mercury astronauts would take Rathmann up on his Corvette offer. The enduring association with America's astronauts has contributed greatly to the legend of the Corvette.
"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."