Saturday, May 28, 2011

The Red Stuff

Late NASA Engineer's 1962 Corvette
Text by David W. Temple
Photography by author except as noted

A half-century ago the United States and the Soviet Union were locked in a new kind of combat dubbed the Cold War. The Communists or the “Reds” were aiming at global domination and one approach to demonstrating their Socialist system was better than Democracy and free enterprise was aiming at space. When our featured 1962 Corvette was new, the Soviet Union was stunning the world by launching men into orbit around the Earth. Their early dominance of space began with the launching of an experimental 84-pound sphere carrying only a radio transmitter called Sputnik 1. Though all it did was transmit “beep, beep, beep…” as it circled the globe high above at over 17,000mph, it suggested that one day in the not to distant future Communist A-bombs might be up there in orbit awaiting the electronic commands needed to send them raining down on the U.S.A. That day, October 4, 1957, ignited the Space Race. Two months later, an American Vanguard rocket exploded on its launch pad and newspapers across the nation reported it scathingly with headlines like “Kaputnik” and “Flopnik!” Meanwhile Soviet rockets were boosting heavier satellites into orbit and in 1959 their scientists even sent two spacecraft to the moon. Sometimes U.S. satellites went into orbit and even made important discoveries while others failed somewhere between the launch pad and the edge of space. One aimed at lunar orbit failed to attain the required speed to reach its target and instead zoomed to an altitude of over 70,000 miles; its instruments transmitted data about earth’s radiation belts until it fell back to earth. It was a least better than exploding in a fireball during launch. The best scientists and engineers were needed in this country to catch and surpass the Red Menace in space – the newest battleground of the Cold War. The battleground soon moved from orbit all the way to the moon when on May 25, 1961 President John F. Kennedy called on the U.S. Congress and the American people to support the goal of “landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth” before the end of the sixties.
The late Frank Norton went to work for NASA beginning his 30-year career with Project Gemini and retired during the Space Shuttle era. He bought our featured 1962 Corvette new and kept it the rest of his life. (Norton family archives)
This 1962 Corvette was purchased new in December 1961. Three years later almost to the day, the owner went to work for NASA and was involved with Project Gemini, Apollo, and the Space Shuttle. It is now owned by Texas resident, Danny Reed.
One man who answered the challenge of the Space Race was the late Frank Norton when he was hired by NASA in December 1964. The Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo astronauts got all the headlines, the autograph requests, and even got a book and movie about them (Tom Wolfe’s, “The Right Stuff”) but many thousands of people working behind the scenes such as Frank helped put them into orbit and on the moon. He went on to work on the Space Shuttle program before retiring from NASA in early 1995.
The early histories of the Corvette and NASA share something in common – failure followed by gradually increasing levels of success. After failing to reach the production goal of 10,000 units for the 1954 model year by as wide a margin as NASA was missing the moon in the early days of the space program and then filling orders for a paltry 700 cars the following year, Chevrolet was ready to put an end to offering their fiberglass sports car. However, with the support and skills of key people within GM such as Zora Arkus-Duntov and Ed Cole, the Corvette matured into a true sports car that was competitive in racing events. The 283 small block V-8 combined with the availability of a four-speed transmission and fuel-injection really made a difference in making the Corvette a hit with enthusiasts; well over 6,000 were built for 1957. Finally, in 1960, production of the Corvette surpassed the 10,000 mark. For 1962, the final version of the first generation Corvette brought to Chevrolet a total of 14,531 orders for the sports car. That same year, NASA put a total of three men into Earth orbit in Project Mercury spacecraft launched by the Atlas rocket which for a time, blew up more often than not. It was more powerful than the little Redstone used by Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom for their sub-orbital missions the preceding year. Also during ’62, NASA successfully tested a couple of prototype Saturn rockets that would ultimately lead to the type used for the Project Apollo lunar missions. More power was a key element for achieving success for the Corvette as well as for NASA.
Side coves were first utilized on the heavily restyled 1956 Corvette and were features originally seen on three GM Motorama show cars in 1955.
The 300hp version of the Turbo-Fire 327 V-8 was an extra-cost option on the Corvette. In this case it is paired with the optional two-speed Powerglide automatic with an aluminum case. The switch to an aluminum case Powerglide was an update for the ’62 model year.
Of course there were other factors involved in building a desirable sports car as GM would learn during the ‘50s. Once sports cars began to gain in popularity in this country, some automakers here started offering their own version. Nash had a Healey in 1951 with an aluminum body built by Pininfarina. Briggs Cunningham built some two-seater sports car, as well, starting in 1951; his C-4R finished fourth at Le Mans in ’52. Other sports car choices included the Kurtis and Crosley’s Hotshot. Even so, there were still few alternatives of American sports cars offered to driving enthusiasts in this country and none of them approached the popularity of the M.G. TD or the XK120 of Jaguar. However, as popular as these cars were to American enthusiasts, only little more than a quarter of one percent of new car registrations in this country were for sports cars. These cars had a number of undesirable characteristics to many Americans. Zora Arkus-Duntov told a group at an SAE meeting in 1953, that statistics showed that the American public did not want a sports car, but went on to question if the statistics gave a true picture. He noted the market for such a car was an unknown quantity and that perhaps a sports car designed to American tastes and roads might have a significant following. History proved him correct, but the original Corvette which went into production in mid-1953 suffered from a lack of qualities most American drivers expected such as roll up windows and other such conveniences. Quality control was another issue with the cars. Panel fit was generally poor and stress cracks appeared fairly quickly. A price tag of $3,490 was certainly a deterrent to ownership as well. Hand finishing the cars like the fiberglass show cars of the GM Motorama where the first Corvette prototype debuted would have clearly improved the early panel fit problems, but would have pushed the price much, much higher. Eventually these problems and others were overcome and the Corvette has maintained a strong following for half a century during which much has happened. The fiberglass sports car, the U.S.A., and NASA are still here, but the Soviet Union exists now only in the pages of history books. The dust of the Cold War has settled and buried the Soviet’s hammer and sickle emblazoned red flag. Their system never produced a single man on the moon nor anything like a Corvette.
The upholstery pattern changed a bit for the 1962 model year. Colors for the interior were limited to black, fawn, and red.
Three years before joining NASA, Frank Norton purchased the Roman Red 1962 Chevrolet Corvette pictured on these pages. On December 30, 1961, he drove away from Ernest Allen Chevrolet in Ft. Worth, Texas in this Vette equipped with the 300hp engine, Powerglide automatic transmission, posi-traction rear axle, white sidewall tires, and radio. The price tag including tax, title, inspection, and license totaled to the sum of $4,653.84, which was about the same amount needed to buy a new Oldsmobile. Of course the latter did not offer the thrills of a sports car!
Frank moved to Florida when he went to work for NASA at Cape Canaveral (then renamed Cape Kennedy for a time). He kept the Corvette for the rest of his life. After his retirement in early 1995, he intended to restore it but only got as far as dismantling it during his remaining nine years of life. Once the estate issues were settled, his family sold the Corvette to its current owner, Danny Reed, who is a member of the National Corvette Restorers Society (NCRS). Danny, an Austin, Texas resident, has one other Corvette closely tied to the Space Race, a 1969 model used about one year by Apollo 12 moonwalker, Alan Bean, while he trained for his lunar mission.
Danny Reed's '62 Corvette is an outstanding award winner. (Photo by Danny Reed)
Since restoring the feature car to NCRS standards, it has won the club’s coveted Top Flight award in national competition with a score of 4,468 out of a possible 4,500 points (without bonus driving points) as well as the prestigious Duntov Award. Recently, it took Best of Class (Corvette) at the 2011 Houston Corvette/Chevy Expo.

Author’s Note: The author appreciates the cooperation of the public affairs office at Johnson Space Center in Houston in allowing access to “Rocket Park” where the author's photos were taken.


  1. The red color alone is so attractive. Is it golden red or something close to that? I am glad that Danny Reed restored its previous beauty and brought the corvette back to life. Only the color has changed a little bit. I suppose.
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  2. The color Roman Red is a bright red and the correct shade for Danny's Corvette.