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Postal Service Marks Space Milestones | This Week In Space History

by michael shinabery

Space history aficionados visit museums to see relics ranging from the Cold War to the lunar landing and Space Shuttle eras. In Houston they can touch a moon rock, and in southern New Mexico see a restored V-2 at White Sands Missile Range. The New Mexico Museum of Space History, in Alamogordo, displays artifacts from the chimpanzee HAM. The Armstrong Air and Space Museum in Wapakoneta, Ohio honors “Neil Armstrong, first man to set foot on the moon,” said the website ohsweb.ohiohistory.org.

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However, if you want to own space history, stamps recognize America’s off-Earth achievements. NMMSH Curator George House characterized them as “mini-portraits of history.” One, which commemorated the Space Shuttle Program at the beginning of the 21st Century, was issued by the United States Postal Service on Jan. 12, 2000.

“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,” said nasa.gov.

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According to collectspace.com, the first “space-topical” U.S. stamp noting a launched mission was a four-cent stamp released on Dec. 15, 1960, depicting the passive communications satellite Echo 1. The 100-foot diameter, 10-story balloon was launched earlier that year on August 12, and was the “first inflatable structure to go into orbit,” nasa.gov said.

The second such stamp was on Feb. 20, 1962, which at four cents recognized John Glenn’s Project Mercury orbital mission aboard Friendship VII. Collectspace.com said these were “secretly held at post offices until his successful splashdown.”

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Suddenly, “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,” nasa.gov said. Space-stamp clubs sprang up, “many of which were at or near NASA facilities.” Enthusiasts “would create specially-themed postal covers, cachets and postage cancellations to help them record the history they were witnessing.” Aboard astronaut recovery ships, “sailors running the individual ship post offices … developed their own special hand stamps.”

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Robert Goddard was on an eight-cent air mail, with First Day Covers postmarked Oct. 4, 1964 at Roswell.

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Ed White’s venture as the first American to spacewalk was depicted on two five-cent stamps released Sept. 29, 1967: the left one showed White, the right the Gemini capsule.

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William Anders’ famous Earthrise photograph, taken aboard Apollo 8, was on a six-cent stamp postmarked May 5, 1969. The words “In the beginning God…” recalled the astronauts’ December 1968 Christmas Eve reading from the Biblical book of Genesis.

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The die for the Sept. 9, 1969 10-cent “First Man on the Moon” was “flown to the Moon on Apollo 11,” collectspace.com said.

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In the mid-1970s the USPS depicted post lunar missions that included Skylab, and the Pioneer, Jupiter, Mariner, and Viking probes.

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The July 1975 two-stamp issue for the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project was co-designed by U.S. and Soviet Union artists.

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According to collectspace.com, “an identical set was issued in the USSR with Cyrillic text.”

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In August 1994, 500,000 stamps honoring Apollo 11’s 25th anniversary “were flown in space aboard (Shuttle) Endeavour.” The $11.75 Shuttle Landing Express Mail on Nov. 19, 1998, had “hidden text (listing) each orbiter’s name.” Endeavour’s name was “misspelled.”

Perhaps the most controversial one was on the 400 postal covers the Apollo 15 crew “entered into a financial agreement with a stamp dealer” to carry to the Moon, nasa.gov said. The “sale to stamp collectors prompted outrage and investigations by NASA and Congress.” Today, the covers “are worth several thousands of dollars apiece.”

Long before the USPS commemorated NASA achievements, however, similar-themes were common worldwide. A six-part series Sky and Telescope magazine published from January-June 1959 featured examples from “more than a dozen countries.” Italy released four in 1942 with astronomer Galileo Galilei’s image. In 1953, Austria honored Johannes Kepler, and the same year Poland recognized Nicholas Copernicus. France depicted Copernicus and Sir Isaac Newton in 1957.

Many nations touted their own observatories. Sky and Telescope’s examples (May 1959) included Korea depicting its 1,300-year-old astronomical observing tower (1948), and a Japanese issue (1949) with the Mizusawa Latitude Observatory. On a 1948 three-cent stamp, the U.S. commemorated the “dedication of the world’s largest telescope” at Palomar Mountain Observatory.

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Constellations such as the Big and Little dippers were on a “1933 airmail (stamp) of Cyrenaica, a former Italian colony that is now part of Libya,” Sky and Telescope said in April 1959. Cuba depicted the Star of Bethlehem and the Crux; and Australia, Brazil and New Zealand the Southern Cross. The May 1959 Sky and Telescope reproduced the northern lights (Norway, 1941), and two 1942 Mexico stamps with photographs of the Sombrero galaxy, and “the planetary nebula in Lyra.”

In 1958, the U.S., France, and Hungary commemorated the International Geophysical Year (June 1957-December 1958) which, in the U.S., led to the launching of the Vanguard and Explorer satellites. The next year, Russian and Romanian stamps showed the Soviet Mechta “space probe,” later known as Luna 1. Ironically, the probe missed the Moon and ended up orbiting the Sun.

“In years to come,” the June 1959 Sky and Telescope predicted, “the science of astronomy will continue its rapid growth into unknown regions with tools undreamed of today. As our science touches everyday life more closely, the number of stamps with astronomical themes should increase accordingly.”

Michael Shinabery is an education specialist and Humanities Scholar with the New Mexico Museum of Space History. E-mail him at michael.shinabery@state.nm.us.

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