Just two days before the 47th anniversary of his death, Mercury Seven astronaut Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom’s 1967 Corvette will be on display at Mecum Auto Auctions, located at Osceola Heritage Park (1875 Silver Spur Lane) in Kissimmee, Florida. On Saturday, January 25, the astronaut’s convertible will be auctioned for an estimated $150,000 to $175,000. Grissom took possession of the vehicle just a few weeks before his untimely death in the Apollo 1 launch pad accident, making this occasion bittersweet.
The Mercury Seven astronauts were known as the height of cool in the early 1960s. Magazines and newspapers dedicated full-color layouts to the lives and hobbies of the earliest U.S. space explorers. One of the bastions of “old school cool” from that era was none other than Grissom, the second U.S. astronaut to fly into space on Liberty Bell 7 in 1961. He was also the first person to fly in space twice (he was partnered with New Nine astronaut John W. Young on Gemini 3 in 1965).
Grissom was known for his engineering brilliance, and his “work hard, play hard” ethic. In Forever Young by Gemini 3 colleague Young and author James R. Hansen, Young remembered his mission commander’s love of fun. “We hit all the spots and then some. Old Gus was a really hardworking fellow, but hard playing, too. He was a really good man to work with. In terms of getting a job done, he knew what it took – even if we had stayed out kind of late the night before.”
One way Grissom unwound was by indulging in his love of fast cars, particularly Corvettes; he even raced cars competitively. This particular Corvette Gus owned has undergone changes through the years (including its color scheme), but stands as a cultural artifact of its time. The Mecum catalog reads, “Extensively documented, the Gus Grissom Corvette is more than a highly desirable of the class of the mid-year field; it is a precious artifact from an historic era of 20th century American history.”
The catalog goes on to state, “Like his fellow astronauts Grissom was also adventurous on terra firma, and in 1967 he took delivery of this L71 427/435 HP Tri Power convertible from Jim Rathmann Chevrolet in Melbourne, Florida. Rathmann, himself an adventurer who raced in the Indianapolis 500 14 times, winning in 1960, witnessed many a race at the expansive Cape Canaveral NASA complex between Grissom and [Alan] Shepard, who drove an identically-equipped Corvette.” Rathmann was known for supplying the Mercury Seven astronauts (Grissom, Shepard, John Glenn, Scott Carpenter, Gordon Cooper, Wally Schirra, and Donald “Deke” Slayton) and other early NASA astronauts with Corvettes.
This auction comes at the beginning of a difficult week for U.S. space history buffs. On January 27, NASA marks 47 years since the Apollo 1 launch pad fire, which claimed the lives of Grissom, first U.S. space walker Edward H. White, II, and Astronaut Group Three rookie Roger Chaffee. The following day, 28 years will have passed since the 1986 STS-51L (Challenger) disaster, which claimed the lives of its seven crew members; on February 1, NASA marks 11 years since the 2003 breakup of STS-107 (Columbia) during its ill-fated reentry.
While the week may be a solemn one for those remembering astronauts who made the ultimate sacrifice for space exploration, this auction will remember one of those intrepid explorers by displaying and celebrating one of the things he enjoyed the most – a fast Corvette.