Chapter Seventeen

1961

     The media furor caused by the flight of Freedom 7 didn’t die down for some time. When Alan and Louise Shepard returned home from Washington DC, they found the press camped out in front of their house. It wasn’t even accurate to say that it was like 1959 all over again. They received hundreds of telegrams from all over the world, and letters by the sack full. The Times of London claimed that Shepard’s flight had expunged the demons of American inferiority, while the New York Times claimed that Shepard’s flight “had roused the country to its most jubilant peak since VJ Day.” In Chile, crowds thronged the country’s newspaper offices of the slightest news of the American space program. Not everyone was so supportive of Alan Shepard’s accomplishment, however. The Soviet news agency Tass dismissed the flight of Freedom 7 as “pathetic.” The Cuban dictator Fidel Castro mocked the flight of Freedom 7as “a desperate effort.”

            In spite of the efforts of the Communists to downplay the success of Freedom 7, Alan Shepard legitimized NASA and silenced many of the naysayers who dismissed the space program as a publicity stunt or a waste of tax money. The space program also affected American popular culture, sometimes in surprising ways. The Corvette had been introduced by Chevrolet in 1953, but sales had yoyoed wildly, and Chevrolet was thinking ceasing production. However, public’s perception of the Corvette changed when photographs of Shepard in his beloved ’59 ‘Vette appeared in Life Magazine. In the aftermath of the flight of Freedom 7, space, formerly the sole domain of science fiction writers, was suddenly cool and every young buck wanted to be Alan Shepard, and a Corvette became a must have accessory.  With the media frenzy surrounding the American space program, it wasn’t long before Shepard’s love of Corvettes came to the attention the higher ups at General Motors.

Rathmann Chevrolet-Cadillac,

Melbourne, Florida

May, 1961

            Shepard pulled up in front of the service entrance and honked the horn. A suntanned mechanic pulled his head out of the guts of a Chevy Impala and turned to see the white Corvette. He recognized Shepard at once. He was always stopping looking for tips and tricks, trying to squeeze every last ounce of speed out of his car.

            “Can I help you, Mr. Shepard?”

            “Yeah,” said Shepard, “I’m here to see Jim.”

            “He’s in his office. He’s expecting you.”

            “Ok, thanks,” said Shepard. Shepard parked his Corvette and got out. He walked into the showroom and was directed to an office in the back. He knocked and opened the door. The office was small and cluttered. Most of the space was occupied by a desk and a couple of battered metal chairs. Boxes of papers were scattered piled in the corners. On the walls were photographs of Jim Rathmann in his NASCAR heyday. Rathmann looked up from whatever he had been doing at the sound of the door opening. “So, what’s this about, Jim?” asked Shepard as he entered the office. Shepard had received a note from the secretary only than morning that

            “Alan,” said Rathmann with broad smile, “come in and sit down.”

            Shepard sat, moving a box of papers from one of the battered metal chairs. “So what’s this all about, Jim?” asked Shepard again.

            Rathman steepled his fingers and eyed Shepard. “On behalf of General Motors,” he began, “I’d like to thank you.”

            Shepard was confused. “For what?” he asked.

            “Well,” said Rathmann, “it seems that that little hop of yours has generated some buzz.”

            “Oh you noticed, have you,” said Shepard.

            “I’m not the only one who’s noticed,” replied Rathmann. “I’ve had several conversations with Ed Cole.” Rathmann paused for a second or two to let that sink in.

            “Really?” asked Shepard, “the President of General Motors?”

            “That’s right,” responded Rathmann. “I’ve also been talking to Zora Arkus-Duntov, I don’t know if you know that name but he’s-.”

            “-GM’s chief designer,” finished Shepard. “Cut to it Jim, what did they want?”

         “To thank you,” Rathmann said again. “You did in fifteen minutes what Chevrolet’s entire marketing department failed to do in eight years. You sold the American people on the Corvette.”  Rathmann showed Shepard a thick sheaf of papers. “Until a couple of weeks ago, I was lucky sell one or two ‘Vettes a month. Now I can’t keep ‘em on the lot. I have a six month backlog of orders for new Corvettes. Hell, even the used ones are going like hotcakes, and there are stories like that from Chevy dealers all over the country. You’ve made a lot of people a lot of money,” said Rathmann, “and to show its appreciation, GM is offering you an executive lease.”

          The way it worked was like this. The astronauts were able to least two cars a year for a dollar, a brand new Corvette for themselves and a family car for their wives and children. Every year, the astronauts would renew their dollar-a-year lease and be handed the keys to a new Corvette. In the end, four of the astronauts took Rathmann up on GM’s offer. Cooper and Grissom both jumped at it at once. So did Deke Slayton, who joked that Shepard’s, Grissom’s and Cooper’s sleek, powerful sports cars made his beat-up family station wagon look like something that might belong to a family of hillbillies.  John Glenn declined the offer. He had recently exchanged his Studabaker Champion for a foreign import, an NSU Prinz, which he bought for $1,500 because it got great gas mileage, but thanks to the space program, the Corvette, the car that Americans had dismissed now became an automotive legend.

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