Last year, our country was tragically reminded that space travel is a hazardous, and sometimes fatal, occupation. The loss of the shuttle Columbia and her crew was surprising to many in this day of "routine" space flight. But in the beginning, 45 years-or-so ago, there were no pretensions that the act of leaving the confines of Earth's atmosphere was anything but dangerous. The technology and the territory were totally uncharted, and the first astronauts were literally putting their lives on the line-allowing themselves to be strapped into capsules atop often unproven rocketships and shot off into the wide blue yonder. It started with the Mercury 7, a group of military test pilots who embraced the danger and excitement they faced and played as hard as they worked. Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom was one of the original seven astronauts, and like many of his colleagues, he also embraced the excitement inherent with driving a Corvette.
The Apollo 1 astronauts: Virgil...
The Apollo 1 astronauts: Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee, shown before the tragic January 27, 1967 capsule fire that cost them their lives.
Grissom was a central figure in the genesis of America's space program. He joined the Army Air Corps too late to see service in World War II, but, after earning a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Purdue University, rejoined the now independent Air Force in time to fly 100 combat missions in F-86 Sabre jets over Korea. By 1957, Grissom had attended Test Pilot School at Edwards Air Force Base in California and was plying his trade at Wright-Patterson AFB in Ohio before being selected as one of the Mercury 7. Grissom's career was distinguished: he was the second American into space and the first American to enter outer space twice while at the helm of Gemini 1. Grissom wryly named the capsule (The Unsinkable) "Molly Brown" in reference to the Liberty Bell 7 that was lost at sea during his Mercury mission. That career ended in tragedy, however, when a flash fire during a launch pad test of the Apollo 1 craft he was commanding killed the three astronauts inside.
On a lighter note, Grissom was also central to the now well-known love affair between the early astronauts and Corvette, which began shortly after the inception of the space program itself. This relationship is documented in Tim Keenan's excellent article "Rocket Men in their Rocket Ships," which originally appeared in the Winter 1989 issue of Corvette Quarterly and was later reprinted in the Spring 1993 issue of Quest Magazine. The astronaut/Corvette relationship began when Alan Shepard, who became the first American in space aboard Freedom 7 in 1961, managed to get a '62 Vette from GM, even though GM never gave cars away. The program snowballed when Jim Rathmann, former Indy 500 winner and Chevrolet dealer to this day, set-up a special lease program for America's astronauts. Grissom and Shepard were some of the biggest gearheads of the bunch, and they played with their cars the hardest-constantly tinkering with their Vettes in an ongoing effort to one-up each other. It was part and parcel for these young men who were living on the edge-pushing the envelope, as pilots say.
It's no surprise, then, that Grissom's last Vette, the '67 drop-top pictured here, was loaded for bear. There's no missing the Rally Red paint with white stinger, or the red leather interior, for that matter. Grissom also ordered his Sting Ray with other niceties such as power windows and steering, an AM/FM radio, a telescopic steering column, Soft Ray tinted glass, and "Strato-Ease" headrests. Lest we forget what type of man ordered this car, however, we'll also point out that Grissom ordered up the hot ticket to Corvette power-the 435hp Turbojet V-8 fitted with the optional transistor ignition and backed by an M21 close-ratio four-speed. He also added the off-road exhaust option-F41 heavy-duty suspension, a 3.70:1-geared Posi-traction rearend, and a speed warning indicator that we doubt he rarely, if ever, heeded. Serious go-fast goodies, indeed. Unfortunately, Grissom's enjoyment of this very cool car was cut short.