This Special \u201869 Chevrolet AstroVette is What You Drive to a Saturn V07/15/2019
With the new 2020 Chevrolet Corvette making its debut, we’re revisiting this cool story from May 2013 about NASA astronaut Alan Bean’s custom and now classic Corvette. Enjoy!
“I never had a dream as good as what I was living when I was an astronaut.” Alan L. Bean, Navy captain, test pilot, and, as part of Apollo 12, the fourth man to walk on the lunar surface, is taking a break from painting in his Houston, Texas, art studio. (An accomplished artist, he’s created Apollo-themed canvases since retiring from NASA.) Now 80, the former moonman is reminiscing about a life lived so large — the monumental machines, the galactic adventure, the Cold War stakes, the superhero adulation — that the rest of us can’t picture an equally epic existence without first hearing, “You want butter on your popcorn?”
Then Bean turns to the custom-painted, gold-and-black Corvette he drove while preparing to become a moonwalker. “In 1969, I was 37. When you’re 37, driving around in a Corvette, and you’ve got the hormones going that you do at 37, well, it was great! It was fun! What could be better than being 37, training all day to fly to the moon, and then when you get off work you jump in your Corvette and drive it around Cocoa Beach — with all the perks that come with that — and then you repeat it the next day! It was great! It was ideal!”
Gentlemen, let’s just get this depressing truth out of the way: For the male of the human species, life reached apogee for those lucky few rocket-riding, Corvette-driving, moon-venturing NASA astronauts in the space-smitten Go-Go that was 1960s America. Theirs was a perfect storm of timing (the dawn of space-capable engineering), almost unlimited government funding (beat those Russkies!), a Holy Grail forged by a martyred president (JFK’s “before this decade is out”), delicious extras (free Corvettes were just the beginning), and star-struck coverage from three TV networks and Life magazine (ticker-tape parade, anyone?). In contrast, what’s a boy of today supposed to want to be when he grows up? Chief Executive Launderer for an investments firm? Winner of the Tour de France without really that many steroids? Pass the hemlock, please.
Alan Bean wasn’t a Corvette man when he joined NASA’s third astronaut group in 1963. “I couldn’t afford to be a car aficionado,” he says. “I was an airplane aficionado. All I did was concentrate on flying planes for the Navy.” But Corvette fever was hard to fight off. Like such Original Seven astros as Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, and Gordo Cooper, Bean qualified for that most prized of star-voyager perquisites: access to a new Chevy every year for the princely sum of $1. (The deal had been arranged by local Florida dealer and former Indy 500 winner Jim Rathmann) “So naturally I got Corvettes,” Bean says. “I had red ones, black ones. Every year they’d take our orders and give us new cars.”
When NASA assigned Bean to his first space flight, Apollo 12, the second lunar landing, he and his crewmates got creative. Theirs was an all-Navy crew: Pete Conrad (mission commander and Bean’s former test-pilot instructor), Dick Gordon (command module pilot), and Bean (lunar module pilot). When it came time to choose their new ’69 Corvettes, Bean remembers, “We said, ‘Let’s get ’em all the same!'” The trio played around with a few ideas, ultimately settling on gold with black trim. “I don’t know why, being Navy guys, we didn’t pick blue and gold,” Bean says. “But we were busy with Apollo 12, so we didn’t have time to think about it too much.”
It was renowned industrial and automotive designer Alex Tremulis, the stylist behind the iconic Tucker Torpedo, who devised the black “wings” paint scheme covering the rear buttresses of the cars, which the astronauts quickly approved. The three identical Riverside Gold sport coupes arrived at Rathmann’s dealership: 390-hp, 427 Turbo-Jet V-8, four-speed wide-range transmission, PosiTraction 3.08 rear axle, air-conditioning, black vinyl interior, special wheel covers. It’s believed Rathmann had the black wings painted on, but, says Bean, “We looked at ’em and they didn’t look any good.” No problem, Rathmann replied. Leave the cars with me. “So we went back to work,” Bean recalls. “And Rathmann put a little quarter-inch white stripe between the black and the gold. Then it looked OK.”
Three of a kind for a three-man Navy crew. But the Apollo 12 astronauts were, after all, highly successful, highly competitive test pilots. Individuals. “We wanted each Corvette to have a small touch of uniqueness,” Bean says. “A little difference between our cars. Now, everything in our spacecraft was color-coded. Pete’s food had a little red Velcro tab on it. His towels had little red marks on ’em. Dick Gordon’s things were white. Mine were blue. So we put a little rectangular plaque in front of the door on the fender: three squares of red, white, and blue, all the same. On Pete’s car he had in the red square “CDR,” for commander. Dick’s in the white square had “CMP,” for command module pilot. And over on mine was “LMP” in the blue for lunar module pilot. That’s the only difference between the cars, that coding similar to what we had in the spacecraft.”
Numerous photos from 1969 show the Apollo 12 crew posed with (or sometimes sitting on) their gleaming, matching AstroVettes grinning like Cub Scouts with a nudie magazine. And why wouldn’t they? Not only did they have the coolest cars around, they were going to the moon! “I look back on it and think how lucky I was,” Bean says. “I see those pictures of us with our Corvettes, so happy, and it just brings back a lot of really good memories.”
In the 40-plus years since the Apollo 12 crew returned their “leased” Corvettes, Conrad’s and Gordon’s have disappeared. (Gordon now lives in Arizona; Conrad died after a motorcycle accident in 1999.) Perhaps the cars were squirreled away and lie hidden in some European or Asian collector’s storehouse. More likely, they were crushed or otherwise discarded, more detritus for the towering, forgotten rubble pile from the glory days of America’s space program.
But Alan Bean’s Corvette, as you can clearly see, survived — thanks to a keen-eyed space and car enthusiast from Austin, Texas, named Danny Reed. Having seen the car in the December 5, 1969, issue of Life, Reed did a double take when, in 1971, he spotted those familiar black wings on a gold Corvette in a GMAC lot right in his home town of Austin. “GMAC, not knowing what they had, had been instructed to sell the car under a closed-bid system,” Reed remembers. “I submitted a bid, but lost. Then, six weeks later, GMAC called. The winning buyer hadn’t come up with the cash. Did I still want the car? I ended up buying Alan Bean’s AstroVette for all I could afford, $3230 — just $30 more than the third-place bidder.” (The original winning bidder, obviously knowing what the car was, had offered $13,000.)
Reed kept the car as-is for his first decades of ownership, but by the late 1990s set about restoring it — not a frame-off job, but a thorough reconditioning that updated the AstroVette to better-than-new condition while maintaining as much originality as possible. To do the work, Reed hired Ray Repczynski, owner of Corvettes by Ray in Houston and one of the earliest members of the National Corvette Restorers Society (NCRS). “No one in the country knows more about Corvettes than Ray,” Reed, now 70, says proudly. Clearly, Reed and Repczynski did their homework — and their handiwork — right. The AstroVette won a Top Flight award (with more than 97 points) at the 2002 NCRS National Meet, and in 2003 won the coveted Duntov Award of Excellence at the NCRS Nationals. In 2008, Reed’s car also won the NCRS American Heritage Award “for the preservation of a historically significant piece of Corvette history” at the NCRS Nationals, making it the only Corvette in history to win both Duntov and Heritage awards. To date, Reed’s immaculate AstroVette shows only 35,000 miles on its odo.
It’s curious that, of all the Corvettes loaned to the astronauts through Chevy’s special lease program, only the Apollo 12 crew’s were special-ordered. And only their three cars were registered in the lessee’s name. The original tank sticker on Reed’s car says: “Courtesy car delivered to Alan L. Bean.” In a collector-car world where forgeries are all too common and documentation is everything, that single piece of paper is Riverside Gold.Thanks to Reed, Alan Bean has since been reunited with his AstroVette on several occasions. “He keeps the car real nice,” Bean says of Reed. “Better than when I owned it.” Mindful of its place in American space history, Reed has also let the AstroVette be displayed at NASA events, at the National Corvette Museum for the 2001 celebration of the 40th anniversary of the first man in space, and at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center museum. “I just want it to stay in the U.S.,” Reed says. “I’m very fortunate to own the car. Every morning before I go to work, like a monk I touch the antenna. Still gives me chills.”
Even with America’s manned space program currently stuck in low gear — space shuttle retired, no NASA rocket launches, all U.S. astronauts now reaching the International Space Station (ISS) via Russia using Soyuz spacecraft — Johnson Space Center in Houston remains perhaps the Greatest Candy Store for Men. Just approaching the sprawling site’s heavily patrolled security gates sets the heart aflutter: radar dishes, a shuttle mockup on a stick, vintage rockets sprouting from a “garden” display, the knowledge that much of the coolest stuff in America’s space history happened right in there.
Today, thanks in large measure to Reed and his golden AstroVette, the doors of JSC swing wide open for us. Here is Building 9, the gargantuan hangar where Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin practiced their pioneering moonwalk and where, today, huge mockups of the ISS stand ready for training. Here is the Virtual Reality Laboratory, where astronauts don special image-producing video helmets and motion-sensing gloves to practice “spacewalking” around an incredibly lifelike, 3-D computer simulation of the ISS. Nearby is the Neutral Buoyancy Lab, a 6.2-million-gallon swimming pool filled with mockups of the ISS so that fully suited astronauts, working underwater, can simulate “weightless” spacewalks. And here is the most hallowed ground of all: the original Apollo Mission Control Center, now a National Historic Monument. It was in this windowless room, sitting at these ancient government desks, eyes fixed on these very cathode-ray screens and winking banks of push buttons, that the young mission controllers and their leaders — among them legendary flight director Gene Kranz — first heard the words, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.” It was in here that they heard the terrifying but calmly relayed words from Apollo 13: “Houston, we’ve had a problem.” Mission Control is quiet now; you can almost smell the sweat and the stale cigarettes. The keyed-up voices still seem to echo in the silence. Our crew moves about the room with barely a word, five grown men with tears in their eyes.
Just seeing the AstroVette back at JSC lifts the soul. Can-do America is alive again. The NASA employees of today are equally smitten. Everywhere we take the car, appreciative crowds form, cameras appear; smiles and poses with the Corvette follow. “You gonna launch that thing?!” laughs a contractor as he passes by in his truck. In front of Building 9, we steal a prime slice of asphalt: “Astronaut Parking Only.” No one complains.
Then Reed offers to let me drive his prized beauty. Me, who as a wide-eyed boy of 9 stayed up late to watch Armstrong and Aldrin walk on the moon on our awful 19-inch black-and-white Zenith. Me, who followed every Gemini and Apollo mission through Life and National Geographic and Walter Cronkite live on CBS. Me, who built lunar-module and Saturn V models as a boy, and who, then and since, has devoured every book on the space program I could find. Now I am going to drive the very Corvette owned by an idol, one of only 12 moonwalkers ever, NASA astronaut Alan Bean.
I slip into the low, crescent-moon seat. The wheel is large and amazingly thin, spindly even. I inhale deeply, hoping possibly to suck in a few grains of lunar dust. The V-8 lights off on the first spin of the starter, a whump and then a strong idle. Passing cars slow; their drivers stare at the beautiful machine. I slot the long-throw shifter into first and ease off the clutch. The Corvette hiccups. It wants a firmer hand. I add throttle, shift into what I’m sure is second, let off the clutch — and for a split-second hear the sickening sound of grinding gears. “Geezus, Arthur! Get a grip!” I fix the shift, pulling the lever back even further, then the AstroVette rolls ahead just fine. Outside, the buildings of Johnson Space Center roll past. For just a moment, it’s 1969 again and I am one of them, a grinning space jockey at the wheel of his glistening Apollo chariot, all of Houston, all the world — hell, all of space — in my steely grasp.
The AstroVette lacks power steering, so low-speed turns are an arm-wrestle. But the ‘Vette lightens up, turns neatly on its wide bias-ply tires, the Turbo-Jet thundering with American torque. My hands dissolve into Alan Bean’s. How it must have felt to hurtle this gorgeous, thrumming thing home from a day in the spacecraft simulators, the sun low over Florida’s Banana River, the air humid and warm, cocktails and banter with friends at the Holiday Inn just ahead, the Man in the Moon above looking down with a special smile just for you. “See you soon, my friend,” you probably said to yourself. And then you gave that big V-8 another stab of gas.
Bean remembers the pull his Corvette exerted over everyone. “My son Clay’s friends would come over,” he says, “and I’d let them drive my car. They didn’t even have driver’s licenses yet, but we’d go into the new neighborhood behind our house, still under construction, and I’d let them take the wheel. Years later, they’d come up to me. ‘Remember when you let me drive your Corvette?’ they’d ask. And they’d smile.” Bean laughs. “Funny, really. They might not remember anything else about me, not even talk about my flying to the moon. But they remembered that I let them drive that Corvette.”
Specifications: 1969 Chevrolet “Astrovette”
Engine 426.9-cu-in/6996cc OHV V-8, 4-bbl Rochester carburetor
Power and torque (SAE gross) 390 hp @ 5400 rpm, 460 lb-ft @ 3600 rpm
Drivetrain 4-speed manual, RWD
Suspension front: control arms, coil springs, anti-roll bar; rear: multilink, transverse leaf spring, anti-roll bar
Brakes front: disc; rear: disc
Dimensions L: 182.5 in, W: 69.0 in, H: 47.8 in
Weight 3450 lb
Performance 0-60 mph 6.0 sec, quarter mile 14.3 sec @ 93 mph (est)
Price when new $6022.20
ASK THE MAN WHO OWNS ONE
Danny Reed, 70, owns his own advertising agency in Austin. A lifelong space enthusiast and owner of several other classic ‘Vettes, he immediately recognized Alan Bean’s car when it was sitting for sale in an Austin GMAC lot. That was 1971. He’s owned — and cherished — the AstroVette ever since.
WHY I LIKE IT:
“I got off active duty in 1962, and Vietnam then divided the country. The space program, though, brought the world together. Bean’s Corvette is a symbol of what NASA accomplished in the ’60s. Apollo 12 was a close crew, and I like that they ordered the three matching paint jobs. And owning the car has brought me close to lots of great people at NASA — including Alan Bean himself, of course.”
WHY IT’S COLLECTIBLE:
The Apollo 12 cars were the only special-ordered Corvettes in Chevy’s astronaut lease program. And only this one remains. It’s also easily the most documented of all the so-called AstroVettes. Some of the other so-called astronaut cars have questionable histories, but Reed has the actual tank sticker bearing Alan Bean’s name — plus piles of other official documents and research materials he’s meticulously gathered during more than 40 years of ownership.
“I start it up every week. Bring it up to temperature, then drive it about four miles. I carefully prep the car before every display or photo shoot — that takes about 40 hours. The engine has been balanced and blueprinted, but it’s completely stock. Really, it requires very little in the way of maintenance.”
“The key is the documentation,” Reed says. “That’s everything. Lots of people claim to own an astronaut Corvette, but do the VIN numbers match the records? Do they have the paperwork? I’ve researched this car to the nth degree.”
EXPECT TO PAY:
While a very nice ’69 Corvette coupe can be for yours for $50K or so, the Apollo 12 provenance of Reed’s AstroVette — and its immaculate, Duntov-winning condition — have pushed its value into the stratosphere. “I could probably ask more than $1 million — and get it,” Reed says, though he has no plans to sell. “There just isn’t another Corvette out there with the history and documentation of this one.”
JOIN THE CLUB:
Corvette Club of America, National Council of Corvette Clubs, National Corvette Restorers Society
Corvette: The Astronauts’ Road Rocket
Most by now know the story of how the Corvette came to be the car of choice for NASA’s astronauts. Space enthusiast and Melbourne, Florida, Chevy dealer Jim Rathmann knew putting the astronauts behind the wheel of the brand’s cars would make for priceless publicity in the space-crazed ’60s, so he easily convinced GM senior executive Ed Cole to arrange special $1-a-year leases for his new rocket buddies. Of the first group of astronauts, the “Original Seven,” six opted for Corvettes — only John Glenn chose a more practical station wagon. (The first American in space, Alan Shepard, had owned his own ’57 as a test pilot and, after his 1961 spaceflight, was given a new ’62 by Cole. He owned 10 ‘Vettes in his lifetime.) The Apollo 15 moon crew — Dave Scott, Al Worden, and Jim Irwin — boasted a trio of Corvettes in red, white, and blue with American-flag-like racing stripes. A photo from 1971 shows them posing with their cars behind a mockup of the vehicle they planned to drive on the moon, also built by GM. You could almost imagine the bumper stickers on their in-your-face ‘Vettes: “My Other Car Is a Lunar Rover.” Lucky bastards. — A.S.
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