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NASA: 50 Years of Exploration

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Pushing the Envelope

    By Rich Cooper

    Space-stamp collaboration - The Apollo-Soyuz stamps were designed by American space artist Robert McCall and Soviet artist Anatoly M. Aksamit.

    Space/stamp collaboration - The Apollo-Soyuz stamps were designed by American space artist Robert McCall and Soviet artist Anatoly M. Aksamit.

    Thanks to the U.S. Postal Service, the history of America’s accomplishments in space has been widely celebrated with some of the most popular stamps in modern times.While museums and science centers across the country are capable of sharing many of the physical artifacts of legendary missions (space capsules, consoles, spacesuits, etc.), all of those items were beyond the physical reach of visitors – but not the postage stamp. Every American with a little change in their pocket could affix to a letter, birthday card or bill a small piece of American pride to any destination in the world.

    Beginning in 1960, with NASA’s launch of ECHO I, the world’s first communications satellite, the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) started to issue commemorative stamps to herald American achievements in space. With the release of the Project Mercury stamp on Feb. 20, 1962, the day of John Glenn’s Friendship 7 mission, the USPS became the de facto partner to NASA in helping it stir public awareness, excitement and enthusiasm for America’s new era of exploration. Whether as a recorder of civic pride or as a means of national propaganda, stamps became the “snapshot” that every person could easily look at to know what was happening at NASA and how we were measuring up to our Soviet rivals in reaching for the moon.

    As NASA moved through its missions, more people started to collect space-themed stamps and postal covers as a way to record the history of America’s race for the moon. Space-stamp clubs, many of which were at or near NASA facilities working on the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions, would create specially-themed postal covers, cachets and postage cancellations to help them record the history they were witnessing. The “mission cover” would become one of the most prized for space stamp collectors. Such a collectible would have the date of a mission launch cancelled on it, or the dates of the mission’s other achievements (i.e. spacewalks, moon landing, etc.) as well as its landing date back on Earth. Some of the most unique of these postal stamp cancellations came courtesy of the U.S. Navy. Sailors running the individual ship post offices (which were part of the U.S. Navy Recovery Force assigned to pick up astronauts following their re-entry splashdowns) developed their own special hand stamps to commemorate their ship’s role in the space mission.

    Stamp of approval - Stamps with special covers and day of launch-moon landing cancellations commemorating two epic events in space history.

    Stamp of approval - Stamps with special covers and day of launch/moon landing cancellations commemorating two epic events in space history.

    No series of postal covers, hand stamps or cancellations are as unique or as controversial as those that were part of the Apollo 15 mission to Hadley Apennine on the moon. Astronauts had long carried postal covers and other small personal items onboard their spacecraft for themselves, their families or to distribute to others after their safe return. Prior to their liftoff, the Apollo 15 crew entered into a financial agreement with a stamp dealer, Hermann Sieger, to carry a number of postal covers to the surface of the moon where they would be “cancelled” and sold to collectors upon return to Earth. Stowed within one of the pockets of the crews spacesuits, the 400 so-called “Sieger” covers made it to the surface of the moon on the ultimate of mail routes. Their subsequent return to Earth and sale to stamp collectors prompted outrage and investigations by NASA and Congress that tarnished the careers of the accomplished crew. Today, the Sieger covers are worth several thousands of dollars apiece and are considered some of the most prized items by space history and stamp collecting enthusiasts. Other postal covers signed by the astronauts and NASA leaders of the early spaceflight era are worth several hundred, if not thousands, of dollars, but to the collectors who have them, they are simply priceless.

    While stamp clubs and collectors did much to record the finer details of America’s forays into space, the USPS continued to capture the vision, accomplishment and excitement that accompanied America’s early exploration of space.

    The stamp honoring the Apollo 8 crew’s voyage to the moon was drawn from the breathtaking Earthrise photograph taken by the crew and quoted their moving 1968 Christmas Eve reading from the Book of Genesis, “In the beginning, God …”

    To commemorate the Apollo 11 moon landing, the U.S. Postal Service issued not just a stamp depicting an American astronaut setting foot on the moon, but also a unique cancellation stamp to honor the date that no one alive at that time could ever forget.

    In honor of NASA’s 25th anniversary, the crew of STS-8 and the space shuttle Challenger carried 261,900 postal covers as part of its mission payload. Once back on Earth, the postal covers in commemorative folders were sold to the general public. The sale of these covers not only honored 25 years of NASA accomplishments but rather gave the public a chance to own a piece of mail that had been on the ultimate delivery route.

    Worthy images - Stamps using images obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope were used for this series on astronomy.

    Worthy images - Stamps using images obtained by the Hubble Space Telescope were used for this series on astronomy.

    While each of the issued USPS stamps of the space race captured the groundbreaking moments of that era, no artist has had greater command or capability of capturing the history and inspiration of space than Robert (Bob) McCall. As the artist behind 21 different space stamps, McCall has depicted spacecraft such as Skylab in orbit and the planetary probe Pioneer doing its flyby of Jupiter; international cooperation with the Soviet Union for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project (a stamp designed jointly with Soviet artist Anatoly M. Aksamit) and later the Russian Space Program (another jointly designed stamp with Russian artist Vladimir Beilin); the promise and enthusiasm of the opening of the space shuttle era; and the fantasy and imagination of future space exploration. McCall also has the distinction of being the only artist to have his stamps (the twin 8-cent stamp celebrating a decade of U.S. achievements in space) hand cancelled on the moon by the “first postmaster in space,” Commander Dave Scott of Apollo 15, during a first-day issue ceremony broadcast on live television.

    While McCall’s skill and imagination captured the essence of America’s exploration accomplishments, the real imagery from NASA’s ongoing missions has also generated a positive response by space-stamp enthusiasts since these stamps started to be issued. The stamps honoring the Mars Pathfinder and Sojourner Rover and the breathtaking discoveries of the Hubble Space Telescope used actual images collected by these respective NASA spacecraft. No artist’s brush could hope to capture the stunning beauty and detail of these images that NASA has shared with the public. That is why the future of space stamps continues to have such promise and possibility.

    For 50 years, NASA has opened a universe of accomplishments, knowledge and possibilities once thought unimaginable. As powerful as they all may be, they can all still fit on something as small as a postage stamp. Just imagine what the next 50 years will bring to your mailbox.