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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: May 11, 2012 @ 11:01 am

    Chariot Of The Space Gods

    Neil Briscoe

    Alan Shepherd kicked off the astronaut-Corvette link after his first space flight in 1962

    Buying anything on eBay (other Internet auction sites are available) is always a bit of a leap into the unknown. You are putting yourself into the hands of the seller, relying on their knowledge and honesty to provide you with a product as advertised.

    It’s not a perfect system, but for small things it’s fine. After all, bid on a Ralph Lauren shirt and you’ll only be down €20 if it turns out to actually be from Ralf Loren. But bidding $250,000 for a car, sight unseen? Now that really is a giant leap into the unknown.

    Which is kind of appropriate as, apparently, the item bid up to that stratospheric level is a 1967 Corvette whose first owner was none other than Neil Armstrong.

    It’s not as if the ‘Vette is in sparkling condition. In fact it’s mostly a wreck; complete but hasn’t run since 1981 according to the vendor. And while Armstrong’s name is in the log book, it’s worth pointing out that Neil took delivery of this car in 1967 when he was a junior astronaut, ahead after his first flight into space on Gemini 8 but two years before the famed Apollo 11 flight. Furthermore, Armstrong sold the car on to a fellow NASA employee in ’68 so the car has, at best, only a tangential link with mankind’s giant leap. Yes, Armstrong’s backside did sit on those seats, but you’re probably going to have to get them re-upholstered anyway.

    Any connection with the Apollo moon missions is enough to send prices for memorabilia and artifacts spiraling though. A simple mission patch, as sewn onto crew uniforms, flown around the moon on Apollo 10 would set you back around $3,000 while even a simple signed photo by Buzz Aldrin (hardly a rarity) would cost as much as $300.

    How can this be? How is it that a scientific mission from forty years ago still holds us in such thrall? Andrew Smith should know. He’s a writer and broadcaster and author of Moon Dust; a book which charts the lives of the Apollo astronauts after they returned from the moon. He’s met almost all the key figures of Apollo (except Armstrong himself; always an elusive figure for the media) and thinks it’s down to the fact that Apollo was a one-off:

    “I often wonder whether that would be the case if the missions had carried on. Apollo only ran between 1969 and 1972 and only twelve people ever went to the moon. Only 24 people have ever, to this day ever left Earth orbit, all on those missions. So the further we get from that, the more exotic and strange they look. I think that’s where the mystique comes from. We don’t even have the capacity to go to the moon now, there isn’t a nation on Earth that could do it and I think that’s what adds the magic to Apollo.

    “The curious thing about the Corvette is that a lot of the early astronauts, from before Apollo, so from Gemini and Mercury, drove mostly European cars – Lamborghinis and the like. So it was this one Chevrolet dealer who changed all that.”

    Alan Shepherd, America’s first man in space, drove a Corvette himself and General Motors gave him the keys of a ’62 model following his flight in May of that year. It was a great bit of publicity but NASA subsequently decided that the astronaut corps shouldn’t be seen to be on some rocket boosted gravy train and banned all freebies.

    “Technically they weren’t allowed free cars. Technically they weren’t allowed free anything” says Andrew. “The Omega watches that they took to the moon, I believe they were given to the astronauts. Armstrong gave his to the pad commander, a man called Gunther Wendt. Armstrong wouldn’t take it as a gift, but they were never paid well these guys, they were paid according to their rank in the armed services.”

    They were allowed discounts though and that’s where Florida Chevrolet dealers Jim Rathmann comes in. Rathmann, a former Indianapolis 500 racer, dreamed up the $1 lease; astronauts could lease both a Corvette and a family car for the princely sum of a buck for the year and the programme continued until the end of the Apollo missions in 1971.

    The Apollo 12 crew of Alan Bean, Pete Conrad and Dick Gordon got matching black and gold ‘Vettes in a colour scheme designed by Bean himself; he would later become a full time artist and painter.

    Gus Grissom, the ill-fated commander of Apollo 1, was another Corvette fan and tweaked his car up with special gear ratios, wider track and competition tyres to drag race between the lights along the roads leading to and from the Cape Canaveral space centre, something it would be hard to imagine any of the clean-cut modern astronaut crew doing.

    “The astronauts are a very different breed now, because NASA, like everyone else, is much more concerned with treatment in the media” says Andrew Smith. “When these guys were selected, there wasn’t even a word for ‘astronaut.’ None of them had expected to be doing this. NASA chose them for their engineering and piloting skills and because of that they were a very maverick breed. They’re not geared towards public relations and if you meet the Apollo guys now, the first thing you notice about them is just how individual they are. Modern astronauts are very good at talking about what they do and are very media friendly, but that simply wasn’t the case back then.

    “I’m no car expert but I do know enough to know that the Corvette was made in response to American pilots coming home from the second world war having driven British sports cars, and the Corvette was a response to that, a “let’s make one of these” response. It’s an American story, born of pilots and science and flying.”

    It seems that long before a mission to the moon, or even sending a man into space, was even seriously considered, high-performance fly-boys and a nascent American sportscar were already being made for each other.

    Apollo left a mark on the history of human kind that has yet to be beaten and can never be erased. When Neil Armstrong took that small step from a flimsy ladder and became the first human to set foot on a world other than the Earth, evolution took a step forward. We became, in however small a way, an interstellar species. Whether that makes a tired V8 sportscar worth the thick end of a Lotto win is another matter entirely.

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