MERRITT ISLAND, Fla. – The first group of American astronauts were selected from a group of Navy, Air Force Marine Corps and Army test pilots who tested the limits of aircraft in the sky and later flew spacecraft to the moon. That need for speed translated to the road in the shape of fast cars with flare.
Mercury and Apollo astronaut Alan Shepard brought his first Corvette to astronaut training in 1952 and after becoming the first American in space, then General Motors executive Edward N. Cole gifted the spaceman a new, white, 1962 Corvette, according to GM.
A former NASA security officer during the Apollo program described seeing Shepard driving at the Cape during an interview for a NASA Johnson Space Center history project.
“I remember Alan B. Shepard passing me on the wet highway one night,” Donald B. Blume said in an audio recording. “He was driving his Corvette and going quite fast on very wet roads.”
Later, all Mercury 7 astronauts receive the sports cars through the Jim Rathmann Courtesy Car program for astronauts.
Rathmann -- a 1960 Indianapolis 500 Winner-- owned a Chevrolet dealership not far from Cape Canaveral leased astronauts Corvettes for as little as $1, according to Rathman’s 2011 obituary in the New York Times.
In a 1999 interview, Apollo 7 lunar module pilot R. Walter Cunningham, who was among the third class of astronauts, described the lure of the Corvette before going back to Porsches.
“I had been driving sports cars all my life. Didn’t have much else to my name, but I was -- like I drove down here in a Porsche cabriolet and I’d owned three or four Porsches, and couldn’t resist the temptation to get a Corvette, because it was quite reasonable,” Cunningham said. “And I must’ve owned the Corvette about four months before I gave up and went back to Porsches on it."
James Lovell, commander of the ill-fated Apollo 13, said in an oral history interview he went through about three Corvettes during his time as an astronaut, which was a step up from his family station wagon.
The history between the first American spacemen and the sports car has continued for more than half a century.
To mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, a parade of Corvettes and astronaut passengers will drive down South Orlando Avenue in Cocoa Beach on July 13. The Cape Kennedy Corvette Club founded in 1967 included four astronauts, according to GM.
Neil Armstrong’s Corvette is in a garage not far from Kennedy Space Center launch 39A, where he Buzz Aldrin and Michael Collins launched to the moon in 1969.
Joe Crosby, of Merritt Island, purchased the 1967 Corvette Sting Ray in 2012 and has restored its original features. According to Corvette enthusiasts, the car sat in a basement from 1981 until Crosby bought the vehicle driven by the first man to walk on the moon.
Earlier this year, the Amazon series “The Grand Tour” took the 52-year-old blue six-speed out for a spin on the former space shuttle runway at Kennedy Space Center.
At the end of the shuttle program, the shuttle landing facility became the Launch and Landing Facility, operated and maintained by Space Florida since 2015.
While Armstrong’s Corvette wasn’t available, News 6 worked with Space Florida and Chevrolet to learn more about the 15,000-foot-long runway and experience what it’s like to drive on the perfectly flat surface where marks from the orbiters can still be seen today.
Corvettes are incredibly light, and Armstrong’s was made mostly of fiberglass. The body of the 2019 Corvette Grand Sport News 6 drove at the Launch and Landing Facility contains so little metal detailing we had to find a plan B for our magnetic GoPro mount. It’s made mostly of carbon fiber, with an aluminum frame and engine, materials selected as not to weigh down the car.
Driving the 460 horsepower sports car down the unencumbered nearly three-mile landing strip is a treat. The aluminum 6.2 liter V8 engine purrs and rumbles along the grooved, 16-inch thick landing facility. Standing on the edge of the runway, it sounds like a jet engine.
The runway and America’s favorite sports car are compliments to one another, both made possible by detailed engineering.
“The runway is actually three different surfaces,” said airfield manager James Moffitt, with Space Florida. “The middle 8,000 is grooved the runway grooves is pretty aggressively. But at 3,500 feet on each end is ground down smooth. And that was purposely done for the shuttle.”
When the orbiter came in for landing at more than 200 miles per hour, it landed with tires that are essentially stationary, touching down on the hard surface.
It’s also weather-resistant.
“It stays perfectly dry through hurricanes and any type of inclement weather. So, beautiful, beautiful engineering,” Moffitt said.
About halfway down the landing strip is a black line of spray paint marking where Atlantis -- the final shuttle mission -- landed in July 2011. In the middle of the 300-foot runway engraved in the cement a marker reads, STS-135 FINAL WHEEL STOP.
‘Beautiful engineering’ ready to handle any landing
Constructed in the 1970s another runway like it will likely never be created, said Moffitt.
“A runway of this caliber probably would never be created again,” Moffitt said. “You know, the length and the width. There's nothing flying to that needs quite that much.”
When the shuttle program ended, NASA accepted bids to take over the facility and Space Florida submitted the winning offer.
Since 2015, the Florida spaceport authority has operated the runway, now called the Launch and Landing Facility, as private use airport, but begin obtaining launch and re-entry site operator licenses through the Federal Aviation Administration to host new spacecraft landings and launches.
In the meantime, while Space Florida prepares to host commercial more launch companies, technology and automotive companies are utilizing the unique space.
The uniform surface is perfect for all kinds of vehicle testing from hybrids to sports cars.
A Genovation Extreme Electric Z06 Corvette broke the land speed record in 2016 at 205.6 mph at the landing facility and tractor-trailer companies use the surface to conduct aerodynamic testing.
The runway hosts aviation work to support launches from Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, including bringing in payloads for NASA’s commercial crew partners. SpaceX, Boeing and United Land Alliance.
Last year, the FAA issued a license to Space Florida that would allow commercial launch startups to use the facility for plane-style launches. Companies including Sierra Nevada Corp. which will begin making cargo supply runs in 2021 to the space station for NASA using its Dream Chaser space plane. The Dream Chaser looks like the black-and-white orbiter from the shuttle program but a fraction of the size.
Space Florida officials are also working with companies like Richard Branson's company Virgin Orbit, which begins launching its LauncherOne rocket later this year. The rocket is carried to altitude by a former Virgin Airlines jetliner named Cosmic Girl and dropped before the rocket's engines ignite.
Virgin Orbit has already secured several take-off and landing locations around the globe for its mobile launch method, during News 6's tour of the Virgin Orbit facilities in June company officials hope the historic shuttle landing site will become an additional pit stop for Cosmic Girl and LauncherOne.
"After shuttle ended, we knew they were going to need a place to launch and what better place then the Space Coast," Moffitt said. "Companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Orbit, they're all vying to come here and launch because the assets are already here."