Apollo Astronauts and Fast Cars: Corvette, Scott Kelly Look Back at the AstroVette

Apollo 12 astronauts Pete Conrad (left), Richard Gordon (center) and Alan Bean with their AstroVette Corvettes and a lunar lander in a crew portrait from 1969.
Apollo 12 astronauts Pete Conrad (left), Richard Gordon (center) and Alan Bean with their AstroVette Corvettes and a lunar lander in a crew portrait from 1969. (Image credit: Chevrolet)

Corvette is going back to the future — in space. Scott Kelly, the former NASA astronaut who spent nearly a year in space on his last mission, made a surprise appearance at the unveiling of the C8 Corvette Thursday (July 18) in front of 1,300 people in Tustin, Calif.

Kelly is a big fan of Corvettes — he's already owned two of them — and this spaceflyer's love of the sleek automobile hearkens back to an era when NASA astronauts were allowed to lease them for cheap. Neil Armstrong, who first walked on the moon 50 years ago on the Apollo 11 mission, was one of those astronauts.

While Kelly, 55, was a little young to remember the astronaut-Corvette (or AstroVette, if you will) connection as a kid, he still loved the car. He remembers two posters side by side on his childhood wall: a Corvette, and an image of actress Farrah Fawcett. 

"One of them worked out," he joked in an interview with Space.com.

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Kelly had to let go of his older vehicles when he and his wife were voluntarily homeless for about six months as they moved between states, he said. Those were 2007 and 2018 Stingray convertibles, which he acquired "when I had the means to get them," he said.

But he's excited to try out the latest model of the iconic car: "This new Corvette is like a rocket — the engine's in the back," is the scripted line Kelly and Corvette have when describing the C8. Spokespeople for Corvette said that having Kelly's endorsement for the new style — after 66 years of front engines — could be a boost for the company's fortunes. (Some long-time fans have lamented the style change, but Kelly is not one of them.)

Related: Driving on the Moon: Photos of NASA's Lunar Cars

AstroVettes for astronauts

Corvette was a part of the space program from the very beginning. 

Alan Shepard received a white 1962 Corvette as congratulations for being the first American in space in 1961. Afterwards, Florida Chevrolet-Cadillac dealer Jim Rathmann negotiated a $1-a-year lease agreement for Shepard's six fellow Mercury astronauts

So many astronauts hopped on board that the cheap Corvette leases continued through the Gemini and Apollo programs until about 1971, according to CorvetteOnline.com. (A red, white and blue version of the Corvette for Apollo 15 appeared on Life Magazine's cover around that time, Corvette spokespeople said.) 

A number of astronauts from the 1960s and 1970s are confirmed Corvette leasers, including Armstrong. A car purported to once be in Armstrong's possession fetched bids in 2012 of more than $250,000 when put on eBay. It was eventually pulled from auction when it didn't meet the undisclosed reserve price, according to a forum discussion on Space.com partner site collectSPACE based on a Fox News report that has been pulled offline. As of 2014, it wasn't for sale since the owner decided to keep it and restore it.

Some other astronauts confirmed to have Corvettes included the Apollo 12 crew, who insisted on matching golden cars as a symbol of their friendship; Apollo 1 astronaut Gus Grissom (who died in a launch pad fire in 1967; his car was returned to the dealership and eventually ended up in a private collection); and Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell. (Tom Hanks, who portrayed Lovell in the 1995 film "Apollo 13" can be seen driving a Corvette as well).

A new Corvette generation

Retired NASA astronaut Scott Kelly poses with a blue Corvette to match his astronaut jumpsuit. Chevrolet unveiled its newest Corvette, the C8, on Thursday, July 18, 2019, in Tustin, California, just ahead of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing.  (Image credit: Chevrolet)

Kelly lamented that the Corvette lease program was no longer in place, but joked that if NASA was to allow it, it should only be for retired astronauts like himself who have already done their service for their country. 

More seriously, he added, NASA has to be strict about these kind of regulations today due to ethics guidelines for public servants, a category that astronauts — out-of-this-world as their job description is — still fall under.

He said that for the early astronauts, the reasoning for having a Corvette was probably simple: "They just wanted to use cool, fast cars."

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story stated that astronaut Scott Kelly would receive a C8 Corvette from Chevrolet. This was incorrect and has been removed from the story.

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Elizabeth Howell
Staff Writer, Spaceflight

Elizabeth Howell (she/her), Ph.D., is a staff writer in the spaceflight channel since 2022 covering diversity, education and gaming as well. She was contributing writer for Space.com for 10 years before joining full-time. Elizabeth's reporting includes multiple exclusives with the White House and Office of the Vice-President of the United States, an exclusive conversation with aspiring space tourist (and NSYNC bassist) Lance Bass, speaking several times with the International Space Station, witnessing five human spaceflight launches on two continents, flying parabolic, working inside a spacesuit, and participating in a simulated Mars mission. Her latest book, "Why Am I Taller?", is co-written with astronaut Dave Williams. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. and M.Sc. in Space Studies from the University of North Dakota, a Bachelor of Journalism from Canada's Carleton University and a Bachelor of History from Canada's Athabasca University. Elizabeth is also a post-secondary instructor in communications and science at several institutions since 2015; her experience includes developing and teaching an astronomy course at Canada's Algonquin College (with Indigenous content as well) to more than 1,000 students since 2020. Elizabeth first got interested in space after watching the movie Apollo 13 in 1996, and still wants to be an astronaut someday. Mastodon: https://qoto.org/@howellspace