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New exhibit at National Corvette Museum takes visitors “From Gas Station to Space Station”

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Astronaut Alan Shepard (center) accepts the keys to a custom 1962 Corvette, gifted to him by Chevrolet General Manager Ed Cole (right) and GM Styling President Bill Mitchell. Photo courtesy General Motors.

July 20, 2019, will mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission’s lunar landing, and Neil Armstrong’s first steps on extraplanetary soil. In honor of this, the National Corvette Museum in Bowling Green, Kentucky has opened a new exhibit entitled From Gas Station to Space Station: How NASA Conquered Low-Earth Orbit, which is slated to run through June 30, 2019.

Low-earth orbit will be a necessary stepping stone to planetary exploration, including future missions to Mars (and beyond). Lessons learned from the early days of the space program – through Skylab, the Space Shuttle and today’s missions to the ISS – are essential to the success of future missions. Per National Corvette Museum Curator Derek Moore, “This exhibit shows where we’ve gone since going to the moon and tells the story of where that transformative moment in history has led us.”

Presented in conjunction with NASA and the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, the exhibit will include a scale model of the Space Shuttle, as well as a flight suit, helmet, boots and gloves from four-time Shuttle mission astronaut Terry Wilcutt, on loan from Western Kentucky University. Given the exhibit’s location, there will be Corvettes on display as well, detailing the link between the space program and America’s sports car.

In May 1961, aboard the Freedom 7, Alan Shepard became the first American (and second man, behind the USSR’s Yuri Gagarin) in space. Upon his return, Shepard – who arrived for astronaut training in 1959 behind the wheel of a ’57 Corvette – was presented with a customized 1962 Corvette by Chevrolet General Manager Ed Cole and GM Styling President Bill Mitchell. The hand-off of the keys was staged at GM’s Design Center in Warren, Michigan, and the ensuing publicity certainly helped sales of the Corvette.

Soon after, other astronauts were seen driving Corvettes, leading many to believe that GM gave cars to all astronauts. That wasn’t the case, since the automaker wasn’t in the habit of giving cars away to anyone at the time, Alan Shepard excepted. Instead, the link between astronauts and Corvettes can be traced to Jim Rathmann, the 1960 Indianapolis 500 winner who’d retired to Melbourne, Florida, where he opened a Cadillac and Chevrolet dealership.

Rathmann understood the marketing value of the space program, so he negotiated a special deal with Chevrolet. For $1 per year, astronauts could lease a new Corvette from his dealership, as well as any other Chevrolet in the lineup (capped at two per year). Most took him up on the offer, selecting a Corvette for themselves and something more practical for their wives and family. John Glenn was a notable holdout, preferring a sensible station wagon to a flashy Corvette.

Apollo 12 astronauts Charles Conrad, Richard Gordon, and Alan Bean with their Corvettes. Photo by Ralph Morse, Time Life Staff, courtesy General Motors.

In 1969, a photo of Apollo 12 astronauts Charles Conrad, Dick Gordon, and Alan Bean atop their special-order, custom-painted 427/390 Corvettes appeared in Life magazine. This caught the attention of NASA administrators, who believed the photo could be viewed as a product endorsement, something strictly forbidden by the agency. It happened again in 1971, this time with Apollo 15 astronauts Jim Irwin, Al Worden, and Dave Scott, and soon after Rathmann’s dollar lease program was quietly ended.

From Gas Station to Space Station will also take a look at the role Betty Skelton played in linking Corvettes to the space program. After an early career in aviation and aerobatics, Skelton switched to more terrestrial pursuits, becoming the first female test driver for a major automaker, a multi-time land speed record holder, transcontinental record holder (in North and South America), and unofficial astronaut trainee. The first woman issued a racing driver’s license by the Automobile Association of America, Skelton favored Corvettes for much of her life, and was responsible for the Chevrolet account at ad agency Campbell-Ewald. Though not documented, it’s quite likely that Skelton had a hand in presenting astronaut Alan Shepard with his Corvette – during an event documented by Campbell-Ewald – during her time with the firm.

Betty Skelton’s 1965 Corvette convertible, staged with a model of the Space Shuttle. Photo courtesy National Corvette Museum.

Corvettes confirmed for display include a 1965 Corvette convertible, used for print advertising and later gifted to Betty Skelton by General Motors for her efforts in promoting the model; a 1971 454/390 Corvette in Classic White with a red and blue stripe, ordered by Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden; and a 1968 427/435 Corvette convertible ordered by Alan Shepard – who required a replacement engine, possibly from a street racing mishap – during his year-long lease.

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