A Parade of Astronauts and Corvettes

A group of current and former NASA astronauts gathered in Cocoa Beach, Fla., on Saturday to commemorate the 50th anniversary of Alan Shepard’s suborbital flight. The event was marked by a parade, with the astronauts riding in a fleet of Chevrolet Corvettes that included examples of the sports car’s six design iterations.

The astronauts rode in Corvettes that corresponded with the time period of their space missions. Scott Carpenter, who followed Shepard into orbit in 1962, sat on the rear deck of a C1 Corvette convertible, while Susan Kilrain, a crew member from multiple missions in the space shuttle Columbia in the ’90s, rode in a C5.

Corvettes, because of some healthy shoves from General Motors and an enterprising Chevrolet dealer in Florida, have been an integral part of astronaut lore for decades. However, Mr. Shepard seems to have initiated the relationship when he arrived for astronaut training in April 1959 in his 1957 Corvette. After Mr. Shepard completed the 1961 mission, Edward N. Cole, a G.M. executive, rewarded him with a specially prepared 1962 model.

Enter the racecar driver Jim Rathmann, who opened a Chevrolet-Cadillac dealership near the Space Center in 1961. Seeing a publicity opportunity, Mr. Rathmann developed a special lease arrangement that put numerous astronauts behind the wheel of Corvettes.

Later, when three Apollo 12 astronauts were photographed atop their identical Riverside Gold coupes for a Life magazine feature story, space-program directors reportedly fretted that the Corvette/NASA tie-up could be construed as a product endorsement.

But the relationship, celebrated in film and print, has endured, as it did in Cocoa Beach on Saturday.

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