Ever wanted to drag race a modern Corvette against a classic ’67 427 Big Block side-pipe convertible? We do that and much more in this special Corvette/NASA feature from February 2014—it’s a story you’ll only find on MotorTrend. As NASA marks 50 years since Apollo 11, we’re revisiting this story.
The tourists have no idea who’s walking among them. As the crowds gape at the towering missiles and wedgy capsules on display at Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, about an hour east of Orlando, a trim elder statesman in jeans and a polo shirt gazes unnoticed at a gargantuan, 223-foot-long Saturn 1B booster laid out on its side, its tubular white skin blinding in the morning sunshine, huge exposed rocket nozzles silent but seemingly poised to spew flames at any moment. Suddenly, no doubt intrigued by the trio of video and still cameras focusing on the older man, a 20-something tourist in shorts and flip-flops steps forward with a pen and paper.
“Uh, can I have your autograph?” he asks politely.
“Well, sure,” says man in the polo. “What’s your name?”
The older man signs the paper, passes it back, shakes the tourist’s hand. The kid can’t believe his luck. “I always wanted to meet a real astronaut. Thanks so much, Mr. Collins!” And with that he practically skips away.
The man turns to me, his tanned face etched with time but bearing a tautness that belies his 81 years, and we burst out laughing. No, we haven’t pulled a fast one — the autograph-signer is indeed a bona fide astronaut, one of just 30 selected in the early 1960s to join the glory days of NASA’s moon program. But he isn’t Michael Collins from Apollo 11. He’s Walt Cunningham, who in October 1968 joined commander Wally Schirra and crewmate Don Eisele to fly the crucial first manned Apollo mission, Apollo 7.
“Happens all the time!” Cunningham says with a grin. “Usually they think I’m Scott Carpenter. Or they ask, ‘Did you ever meet Neil Armstrong?’”
We share another good laugh. But make no mistake: I’m just as awed to be in Cunningham’s presence as the confused autograph hound. After all, when I was a boy in the ’60s, NASA kept me busier than Ham the space chimp. I watched every rocket launch and splashdown live on our battered old black-and-white Zenith. I clipped newspaper and Life magazine articles on my NASA heroes. I built models of Gemini capsules and Saturn rockets and lunar modules and dreamed of someday boarding one myself. If you’d have told me then, “Four decades from now, you’re going to spend a week driving across the country with an Apollo astronaut,” I’d have choked on my Pillsbury Space Food Stick and dropped my glass of Tang. “Oh, sure,” I’d have replied. “And I suppose one day I’ll take pictures with my phone.”
Of course, Cunningham hasn’t flown all the way out here from his home in Houston just to wax nostalgic on his old stomping grounds. I lured him with bait. Like most of his rocket-jockey colleagues from the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo days, Cunningham has long been a Corvette man. He’s owned several, plus other sports cars including Porsches, a Ferrari 246, and an Acura NSX, and still drives a 2005 C6 — manual transmission, thank you. So when I rang him up and mentioned, “I’ve got a brand-new 2014 C7 ‘Vette…gonna drive it from KSC in Florida to Johnson Space Center in Texas for our online show ‘Epic Drives,’” Walt took all of three seconds before replying, “Hope you like riding in the passenger seat.”
Before we head to the car, Walt and I take the rest of the day to explore KSC. Visiting a NASA site in the company of an Apollo astronaut is like touring the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with Mick Jagger. Every locked door opens wide. First we take some time to examine the huge Saturn 1B. The rocket holds a special significance for Walt, as he, Schirra, and Eisele rode one just like it into Earth’s orbit for an 11-day shakedown of the then-untested command module (Apollos 8 through 17 used the even larger Saturn V). “In those days, I just took it for granted,” Walt says as he takes in the 1B’s imposing flanks. “I was gonna fly whatever vehicle was out there. But now I come back and can really appreciate the significance of it. It’s impressive.”
Next we venture over to launch complex 39A, ground zero for Apollo 11 and most of the other moon missions, and many shuttle launches. Apollo 7 actually lifted off from pad 34, but today that complex is off-limits because of a nearby countdown for a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. (Pad 34 was also the site of a devastating 1967 fire that killed Apollo 1 astronauts Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee.) But just being near any pad brings back launch-day memories for Cunningham. “When you got out here and strapped in, you had a pretty good feeling you were actually going to go,” he says. “My whole career as a Marine fighter pilot and years of astronaut training were finally paying off with an actual space launch.”
As we drive away from the pad, we’re hit by an incredible stroke of luck: Running along its huge gravel tracks is one of NASA’s crawler-transporters, the 6-million-pound, diesel-powered, tank-treaded rigs that carried the completed moon rockets to the launchpad. The crawlers rarely leave their parking spaces unless they’re needed for a mission, and even Walt has never seen one in action before. As the beast rolls by at a stately 1 mph, both of us are overwhelmed by sheer mechanized wonder. Given that NASA built only two of the things, there’s a 50 percent chance that this is the one that carried Walt’s Apollo 7 rocket to its pad back in 1968.
The Vertical Assembly Building (VAB) is the largest single-story building in the world. It towers above the surrounding marsh of the Space Center, visible for miles in any direction. Inside, technicians assembled the various rocket stages of the Saturn moonships (and, later, the space shuttles) upright. Even today, when it’s completely empty, it’s a majestic space, breathtaking in scope. It’s said that on particularly humid days, rain clouds form near the ceiling. (The VAB is so immense — 526 feet high, almost 130 million cubic feet of area — that it contains its own micro-climate.) Even during the runup to his flight, though, Walt never spent much time in here. “I was too busy training,” he says. “I trusted the rocket guys to do their thing while I did mine.”
The next morning, we begin a long drive to our next stop, New Orleans. Walt happily takes the wheel of the C7, and right away he’s smitten. “Wow, it’s just so tight, so quiet,” he gushes. “Way more solid than my C6. They’ve improved the cockpit a ton, too. And the power…just fabulous. Even though I’m a die-hard fan of manuals, I like the paddle-shift automatic a lot.” Walt looks over at me and smiles. “You know, I may just have to get one of these.”
For NASA devotees, New Orleans means more than scrumptious powder-sugared beignets and the uninhibited diversions of Bourbon Street. The city is also home to the Michoud Assembly Facility, where in the 1960s and early ’70s technicians crafted the enormous first stages of the Saturn 1B and Saturn V boosters. Thanks to a friend who owns a boat, Walt and I zip across Lake Pontchartrain to visit the back entrance of Michoud. “This is where they’d load the rocket stages onto barges to be shipped via inland waterways to Cocoa Beach,” Walt says.
I rise early the next day and slip off via Corvette to visit Michoud’s front gate. There, in all its gravity-defying glory, lies an original Saturn V first stage — a piece originally intended for the Apollo 20 moon mission, which was later canceled. The years have done nothing to diminish the majesty of this machine, the main stage of the most powerful rocket ever successfully deployed. With the whistling wind the only sound, the nearby C7 ‘Vette almost seems to whisper to the aging Saturn: “C’mon, guy. We’re Americans. We can still do this.”
Johnson Space Center in Houston lies 350 miles west of New Orleans, but before Walt and I turn into the home of Mission Control, we detour to visit my Texas friends Bruce Shuman and Danny Reed, each of whom owns vintage ‘Vettes to die for. Danny drives the ultimate prize: the so-called “AstroVette,” a ’69 427 coupe once owned by Apollo 12 lunar module pilot Alan Bean, the fourth human to walk on the moon. All three Apollo 12 crewmembers — including commander Pete Conrad and command-module pilot Dick Gordon — had matching ‘Vettes painted in black over gold. Reed found this one all but abandoned on a GM auction lot in 1971, and has owned it ever since. Today, it’s the only one of the Apollo 12 AstroVettes that remains. It’s probably worth, oh, north of $2 million.
Schuman’s collection would be the envy of any Corvette buff. Among his cherry toys: a ’61 283 convertible, a ’63 split-window coupe, and “The Beast” — a ’67 427 Big Block side pipe convertible rated at 435 hp but probably making well over 500. “Hey, Bruce,” I say. “I’ve booked some runway time tomorrow at Ellington Air Force Base. How’d you like to drag race your Big Block against my C7?”
Bruce is all over the idea. “I think that could be arranged!”
The next morning, on a closed 8000-foot runway at Ellington, I line up my C7 against the rip-snorting ’67 Big Block. At the wheel of the vintage Chevy is the only man Bruce trusts with his cars: Ray Repczynski, perhaps the finest Corvette wrench in the country. Our walkie-talkies crackle with the famous “3…2…1…Liftoff!” and away we go. But it’s no contest. Ray may be an expert driver with more than 500 horses under his right foot, but he’s got skinny ’60s-era tires, a tricky clutch, and a suspension that wanders all over the grooved pavement. The C7, in contrast, is simply effortless: Just mash the pedal, flick the paddle shifters, and I’m gone in a cloud of tire smoke and a flash of screaming yellow paint. The 2014 ‘Vette wins by a mile.
Our day at Ellington offers one additional perk: I get a chance to take Walt’s lovely wife, Dot, for a quick blast in the C7. In seconds, we’re hurtling down the runway at 158 mph — and Dot is all smiles and giggles. “So, do you think Walt should buy one of these?” I ask.
“Are you kidding?” Dot says with a laugh. “This car is great! I want him to buy one!” (Hear that, Walt? You owe me!) The sights within Johnson Space Center will leave the most jaded tech geek awestruck. Inside the huge Building 9, for instance, lie full-size mockups of the International Space Station, the Orion capsule (a planned follow-up to Apollo), various experimental robots, and a space shuttle systems trainer. “In my day, the command module was considered pretty complicated,” Walt says as he pores over the dizzying array of buttons and controls on the shuttle flight deck. “We had 1800 switches we had to know how to control — seemed like a lot. But you can see that this is much bigger!”
About 20 minutes outside of JSC is the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, a 6.2-million-gallon swimming pool that houses actual-size pieces of the International Space Station. With its lake-size tank, giant video displays, and cool spaceship mockups, the place looks like a set for a James Bond flick. By working underwater, astronauts in full space suits can simulate the weightlessness of space — invaluable training for the extra-vehicular activities (space walks) common for ISS astronauts. “Of course, in my day we didn’t have anything like this,” Walt says. “We did a little scuba in a hotel swimming pool!”
For sheer historical significance, nothing tops the beating heart of JSC: the original Mission Control Center. It was in this drab, theater-like room, with its banks of green desk monitors, cheerless government carpet, and no outside windows, that some of the grandest moments in the history of American exploration played out. When Neil Armstrong radioed, “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed,” his voice reached this desk, where CapCom Charlie Duke responded, “We copy you down, Eagle.”
When Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell radioed his calm but urgent, “Houston, we’ve had a problem,” it was flight director Gene Kranz, sitting right here, who stirred his team into action to save the crew. I swear I can smell the stale coffee, the cigarettes, the sweat still hanging in the air, the room now a National Historic Landmark. Walt and I are rendered silent just being in this hallowed chamber. I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve got tears in my eyes.
Later that afternoon, Walt bids farewell to the Corvette, but not before rendering his verdict. “Honestly, I can’t think of a single negative thing to say about the C7. It’s kinda like my life: We’ve both evolved over the years.”
Before Walt heads for home, we stop off at an indoor display housing a restored, original Saturn V rocket — all 363 horizontal feet of it. Along one wall are pictures and bios of all of the crews of Apollo — most of them friends of Walt’s, many of them now gone, including both of his Apollo 7 crewmates. Walt surveys the pictures in silence, his mind no doubt flooding with memories of those heady days of the space race, when it seemed as if nothing was impossible in the United States — at least not for these can-do NASA rock stars.
You could forgive a man in Walt’s position — one of a mere handful of Americans to fly on mankind’s greatest-ever adventure — to be a little full of himself, perhaps even downright arrogant and entitled. But that’s not Walt. Not at all. As he gazes at the pictures of his own Apollo 7 crew, suddenly he stops, turns to me. “You know what strikes me most being in here with this rocket, looking at these old photographs of all of us?” he says. “How lucky we all were. How lucky to have the right skills in the right place at exactly the right time in history. I still pinch myself that I got to fly in space.” He smiles. “Not too bad for a former Marine from Iowa!”
My Other Car Is a Lunar Rover
It’s easy to see how the Corvette came to be the car of choice for NASA’s astronauts. Space enthusiast and Melbourne, Florida, Chevy dealer Jim Rathmann (a former Indy 500 winner) knew putting the astronauts behind the wheel of the brand’s cars would make for priceless publicity in the space-crazed ’60s, so he easily convinced GM senior executive Ed Cole to arrange special $1-a-year leases for his new rocket buddies. Of the first group of astronauts, the “Original Seven,” six opted for Corvettes; only John Glenn chose a more practical station wagon. (The first American in space, Alan Shepard, had owned his own ’57 as a test pilot and, after his 1961 spaceflight, was given a new ’62 by Cole. He owned 10 ’Vettes in his lifetime.) Walt Cunningham snapped up several ’Vettes during his astronaut career, as did the “AstroVette”-owning Apollo 12 crew. The Apollo 15 team — commander Dave Scott, Al Worden, and Jim Irwin — had a trio of Corvettes in red, white, and blue with American-flag-inspired racing stripes. A 1971 photo shows them posing with their cars behind a mockup of the vehicle they planned to drive on the moon — also built by GM. You could almost imagine the bumper stickers on their in-your-face ’Vettes: “My Other Car Is a Lunar Rover.” Lucky bastards.
Flight of the Phoenix
Within 15 seconds on January 27, 1967, the U.S. space program changed forever. An exposed wire sparked in the pure-oxygen environment of the Apollo 1 command module, at the time undergoing a routine “plugs out” test on the launchpad. In seconds, fire swept through the cabin. The crew tried desperately to open the complicated hatch—which in the best of conditions required 90 seconds to unlock, including assistance from the outside. Seconds later, all three — commander Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee — were asphyxiated. With them nearly died the entire Apollo moon shot.
Yet the deaths of the Apollo 1 crew may have saved the program, and certainly contributed to NASA successfully meeting President John F. Kennedy’s pledge of “landing a man on the moon before this decade is out.” NASA aggressively examined every detail of the charred Apollo 1 capsule. Astronauts and contractors worked tirelessly to correct its myriad faults and design flaws, and by October 1968, a completely redesigned Block II command module was ready to fly.
Walt Cunningham, along with commander Wally Schirra and Don Eisele, was assigned to fly this crucial new first flight of Apollo. And their mission, 11 days in Earth orbit, was an unqualified success. In fact, it was almost too perfect. Commander Schirra, suffering from a bad head cold and determined not to let “annoying” scientific experiments get in the way of a flawless test flight, all but committed mutiny — he flat refused numerous requests from Mission Control to perform anything but the most essential of flight-related tasks. The experienced Schirra was retiring from NASA after the flight anyway, but his actions all but doomed the future careers of rookies Eisele and Cunningham. Neither flew again.
In his superb memoir, “The All-American Boys,” Walt is kind to Schirra, implying that his commander made tough but correct calls. But when I ask Walt, “Schirra kind of screwed you guys, didn’t he?” Walt gently smiles and nods his head.
“In retrospect, I was too forgiving of him. I probably would’ve flown on SkyLab, but the guys upstairs still had a bad taste in their mouths from Apollo 7. That said, I do understand where Wally was coming from. After the Apollo 1 fire, he just wanted Apollo 7 to be perfect. All things considered, I was happy to be a part of that.”
Signed copies of Walt’s book, “The All-American Boys,” are available at www.waltercunningham.com
|2014 Chevrolet Corvette C7|
|VEHICLE LAYOUT||Front-engine, RWD, 2-pass, 2-door hatchback|
|ENGINE||6.2L/455-460-hp/460-465-lb-ft OHV 16-valve V-8|
|CURB WEIGHT||3400 lb (est)|
|LENGTH X WIDTH X HEIGHT||176.9 x 73.9 x 48.6 in|
|0-60 MPH||4.0 sec (MT est)|
|EPA CITY/HWY FUEL ECON||16/28 mpg|
|ENERGY CONS, CITY/HWY||211/120 kW-hrs/100 mi|
|CO2 EMISSIONS||0.98 lb/mi|
|ON SALE IN U.S.||Currently|
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