A Space Odyssey

  • Sheila Gibson Stoodley

It was more than 40 years ago when Danny Reed passed by a GMAC lot in Austin, Texas, and felt the thrill of his life. A 1969 gold Corvette Stingray with black accents and 28,000 miles on the odometer sat among the rows of otherwise mundane machines. Reed instantly knew what it was, but he also knew exactly where to look to prove that he was right. A rectangular plaque divided into squares of red, white, and blue was fashioned above the word Stingray on the car’s fender, and stenciled on the blue square were the letters LMP, which stood for lunar module pilot. That meant that the car had once belonged to Apollo 12 astronaut Alan Bean, the fourth man to walk on the moon.

As a space program enthusiast and a self-proclaimed “car nut,” Reed had saved an issue of Life magazine that depicted the crew of Apollo 12—command module pilot Richard “Dick” Gordon, mission commander Charles “Pete” Conrad, and Bean—dressed in their blue flight suits and seated atop the roofs of their matching gold-and-black Corvettes. The crew availed themselves of an astronaut lease program created by Indy 500 victor and Chevrolet-Cadillac dealer Jim Rathmann, which let them enjoy their cars for one dollar per year. After the leases expired, Bean returned his automobile; and by some stroke of luck, Reed happened upon the vehicle on the car lot.

Mustering his best poker face, Reed asked a salesman about the situation with the car and was told that the dealership was accepting closed offers and would sell it to the highest bidder. Reed offered $3,230, slightly more than its wholesale value, but the sum only secured his status as the underbidder. Weeks later, the dealership informed him that the winner, who initially offered $13,000 for the car, hadn’t come through, which meant the vehicle belonged to Reed. The Austin resident drove his prize home in August 1971, and since then, he’s subjected it to a careful and sensitive restoration—the Corvette’s parts, right down to the shocks, remain largely original. Reed has reunited Bean with his car several times; he has shown it at several Corvette events, NASA functions, and other space-themed occasions; and in 42 years, he’s driven it only 6,000 miles. “The car has a better life than I do,” Reed jokes.

The tale of the Apollo 12 Corvettes illustrates just how strange a time the 1960s and early 1970s were, not only for collectibles but for the very notion of what was deemed to be a collectible. Rathmann, who died in 2011, was savvy enough to create the astronaut lease program and savvy enough to deliver the trio of custom-painted cars to the Apollo 12 crew, but he was not savvy enough, it seems, to hang on to the cars once those leases expired. Reed knows the VIN numbers for the two sister Corvettes and has searched for them for four decades, but in all that time, neither one has been registered in any of the 50 states. “I really think they would have shown up by now because of the publicity [my car] has gotten,” Reed says. “It appears mine’s the only one that’s left.”

While Alan Bean’s 1969 Corvette never traveled beyond Earth’s atmosphere, it exemplifies the popularity of and demand for items associated with man’s early explorations into space. Though many artifacts have been preserved since the United States and the Soviet Union first experimented with manned (and unmanned) spaceflights, there are more that have yet to reach the collector’s market. From museum contracts to government lawsuits, the relatively brief history of collecting space-exploration memorabilia is cloaked in controversy. While it’s safe to say that the items associated with man’s earliest missions into space will remain collectible, it remains a mystery as to which blue-chip pieces will come up for sale next.

Almost two decades ago, Alan Lipkin, a senior vice president and the space memorabilia expert at Regency-Superior Auctions in Los Angeles, brokered the sale of a Mercury program–era space suit that was preserved by an unlikely hero. “A janitor [for one of the space program’s contractors in Ohio] picked it out of the garbage and asked if he could have it for his kid as a Halloween costume,” Lipkin recalls, adding that after it had served its noncelestial purpose, “he brought it to us, and got six figures for it.”

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