At the Washington 2006 World Philatelic Exhibition, I was exposed to an exhibition class that ignited my imagination. Throughout my life, test pilots and astronauts have been my heroes. Intelligent and fearless, they chased the Mach demon and explored the cosmos. In philatelic parlance, they “licked the outside of the envelope.”
Astrophilately is the intersection of space and postal history. Fédération Internationale de Philatélie (FIP) defines it this way:
2.1.1 An astrophilatelic exhibit comprises philatelic material related to the space exploration. It does not develop a theme. It is a philatelic study of the scientific and technical progress achieved in the conquest of space, including stratosphere research, early rocketry and the precursors to the various types of spacecraft, chronologically recording the relevant events within the different programmes.
Perhaps you too enjoy learning about space exploration, telescopes above the atmosphere, rovers on Mars, and probes that depart our solar system for parts unknown. Maybe the careers of Chuck Yeager, John Glenn, and Neil Armstrong fascinate you. If so, sharing your twin passion for spaceflight and philately is for you. This primer will get you started on a journey of discovery which is, quite literally, endless.
Exhibiting is all about the story
Exhibits differ from an accumulation or collection in that exhibits tell a story. With the Title, Purpose, Scope and Plan, an exhibitor lays out the reason, limits and overview of a tale they plan to share. Without a sensible starting place, a logical end point, and a compelling “golden thread” that connects the two, our pages might as well be pages out of a stamp album. When done well, an exhibit communicates to the viewer how the subject is important and why you are passionate about it. Ideally, the viewers leave with a better understanding of the topic and perhaps a new area to collect.
Clearly, the story of space exploration could be told in several different ways. You could gather stamps and covers with images of astronauts and rockets to present a Topical or Thematic exhibit. A Maxi cards or First Day Covers exhibit could convey your interest in spaceflight. You could also focus on Postal History, Display, or Illustrated Mail. For more information see “Intro to Exhibiting”.
Astrophilately is different. We tell the story of the conquest of the cosmos through philately. Our principal interest is not the images on the stamps, the rate the franking paid, or the route the envelope traveled. For us the postmark is everything. It fixes two elements which are essential for telling what, for us, is a technical story. Those elements are the time and the place (in other words, the post office closest to the controlling center).
The postmark is everything
Say for example you wanted to tell the story of the first lunar landing mission. You could tell it with three envelopes. The first is cancelled at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on July 16, 1969. It was from that place and on that date that Apollo 11 launched towards the moon. Once the spacecraft cleared the support structure, control of the mission shifted from the Kennedy Space Center to the Manned Spacecraft Center in Texas. For this reason, an accurate cover for the moonwalk on July 20 must be cancelled from the Houston post office closest to the controlling entity, the Manned Spacecraft Center. Completion of early flights involved ocean splashdown and recovery by the U.S. Navy (at least until runway landings by the Space Shuttle in the 1980s). For this reason, our story isn’t complete without a cover postmarked on the Prime Recovery Ship (PRS), the USS Hornet on July 24, 1969. (Figures 1–3.)
Figure 1. Apollo 11 launch cover sold by the NASA Exchange. Sent by someone who worked in the Vehicle Assembly Building where the spacecraft was assembled and tested.
Figure 2. NASA Manned Space Center stamp club cover with machine and hand cancels on the day man first walked on the Moon.
Figure 3. Machine cancel onboard the aircraft carrier USS Hornet the day the crew was plucked from the Pacific Ocean. The hand painted art was added later.
The devil is in the details
Sounds simple, right? But what happens if the event takes place when the post office is closed? During Skylab missions (May 1973 to February 1974) the Prime Recovery Ship’s postal facility was closed on the recovery day. In these cases, FIP regulations permit the next business day to signify the event. What if the recovery vessel is too small to have an onboard post office? Tracking ships and vessels that recovered solid rocket boosters (SRB) for the Space Shuttle didn’t process mail. In these cases, the date the ship returned to port and the port location are acceptable. Wonder what time it is on the moon or the International Space Station? It is whatever time it is (at Mission Control) in Houston, Texas.
Textbooks report that the Space Age began on October 4, 1957, with the launch of Sputnik. However, astrophilatelists view history based on the controlling event. As such, Sputnik departed for orbit not on the evening of the fourth (Moscow time) but instead in the early hours of October 5, from the launch complex at Baikonur Cosmodrome in southern Kazakhstan.
In the 1960s and 70s, the U.S. Navy had dozens of ships stationed around the world to support a space mission. Some were tracking and relay vessels and others were designated to rescue and recover spacecraft after splashdown. While the Navy designated a prime recovery ship, however, it didn’t always go according to plan.
Although the USS Randolph was designated to recover the first American to orbit the earth in February 1962, John Glenn was instead rescued by the USS Noa. On the next mission, in May 1962, Scott Carpenter was so far off course that the prime recovery ship couldn’t get to the capsule. If you have room for only one or two envelopes to tell this part of your story, would you choose one cancelled on USS Farragut (first on scene), USS John R. Pierce (towed capsule to Roosevelt Roads, PR), or USS Intrepid (helicopter that recovered the astronaut)?
When does space history start?
Astrophilatelists also reach back in time to illustrate the origins of the Space Age. But take care: sloppy thinking can lead you and your viewers astray.
Take for example the question of how to depict the origin of propulsion in space. In the atmosphere aircraft are powered in one of three ways: reciprocating engine (propeller), jet powerplant, or reaction motor (rocket). Of these, only rocket engines carry their own oxidizer to burn fuel. Propeller and jet aircraft fail to work as they reach the upper limits of the atmosphere.
Since the Space Shuttle used solid rocket boosters (SRB) containing a compound similar to gunpowder, you may be tempted to depict the invention of Congreve British artillery rockets or Chinese fireworks. This is misleading. Saying the SRB harkens back to the invention of gunpowder in the 9th century is like saying the Saturn V origins date back to early man, because fire comes out of the F1 engine.
Man cannot survive at high altitudes or in space without an oxygen-carrying pressurized environment. Supplemental oxygen had been used in aviation in the U.S. since 1919 but the first operational use of a full pressure suit is an important example of technological advancement essential to spaceflight. Wiley Post spent 30 hours in this forerunner of a space suit in 1935 while riding the jet stream from California towards New York. (Figure 4.)
Figure 4. Airmail carried by Wiley Post on several legs of a coast to coast flight.
While man has ascended in balloons since 1783, the 1930s marks the beginning of technological inventions truly useful to the exploration of space. For the first time, with the helium balloon flights of Auguste and Jean Piccard, pressurized stratospheric flight conquered key physiologic issues including barometric pressure, temperature, and humidity. While aloft, the Piccards conducted research on cosmic rays, ionized radiation, and other high-altitude atmospheric studies useful to physics, medicine, and spaceflight. These craft never left the atmosphere but they are nevertheless an important part of space history. (Figures 5–7.)
Figure 5. Mailed at the site of Professor Piccard’s Century of Progress flight.
Figure 6. Flown on NGS Explorer II, setting a world altitude record in 1935.
Figure 7. U.S. Navy Strato-Lab High launched from aircraft carrier USS Antietam. During recovery scientist Victor Prather drowned.
You might think that any rocket mail would be acceptable in an astrophilately exhibit. After all, rockets are how spacecraft travel outside the atmosphere, right? But here we bump into a current debate in the hobby. Presented in Figure 8 is a classic item unquestionably carried on a U.S. Navy missile. Because astrophilatelists focus on technical specifics of the mission, however, it should be shown with caution.
Figure 8. U.S. Official missile mail flown in a Regulus I cruise missile. It was later forwarded to 3000 VIPs through the postal service.
America’s first official missile mail was flown in a Regulus I cruise missile powered by a jet engine and flown by radio control. Had it been carried by a Regulus II (at that time just coming into service), display of this item would be appropriate. The Regulus II included a rocket motor and inertial guidance (both used in spaceflight). The difference between Regulus I and II missiles is analogous to the difference between the V-1 “buzz bomb,” a subsonic German missile powered by a gasoline pulsejet, and the V-2, a supersonic rocket powered ballistic missile capable of spaceflight. It was the V-2 which served as the ancestor of all liquid fueled space boosters.
A sample story
Let’s say I want to tell the story of the development of a space plane. At the top of this exhibit is a Title page. It includes a Purpose, Scope, and Plan: Purpose assists in establishing importance; Scope delineates what part of an impossibly broad story you plan to share; Plan lays out a roadmap with a sensible beginning, a thoughtful story, and a logical endpoint.
Our story begins with the North American X-15, a manned, air-launched vehicle with the performance characteristics of the V-2 missile. Over the course of 199 powered flights between 1959 and 1968, a dozen pilots flew three aircraft higher (354,200 ft) and faster (Mach 6.72) than any vehicle — at least until the Space Shuttle returned from orbit in April 1981. Here (Figure 9) the X-15 is shown with an Edwards AFB machine cancel on the day of the first powered flight. Scott Crossfield, the North American test pilot, has autographed the envelope. To astrophilatelists, cachets and autographs play a supportive role to assist in explaining the significance of the postmark and providing some visual interest.
Figure 9. Goldcraft cachet and Crossfield autograph on X-15 flight
The next part of the story involves an important technical problem to be solved. Getting a vehicle into orbit is relatively straightforward compared to getting it back—provide enough thrust over weight and there you are. On the other hand, deorbiting from 17,500 mph through a steadily thickening atmosphere to make a precision runway landing is something else entirely. Consider when you witness a shooting star. You are watching air friction become so intense it sets rocks on fire and they burn up. What chance would an aircraft with slender aluminum wings and full of temperature sensitive electronics have?
Tests of unmanned reentry vehicles like PRIME (X-23) and Project Asset in 1966 (Figure 10) provided some initial ideas about how to deal with the tremendous reentry heat. Some methods include heat sinks (the structure just gets hot), ablative heat shields (later used in the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions), and lift over drag calculations.
Figure 10. Rank “flocked” art on U.S. Air Force orbital reentry test.
Between 1962 and 1975, the Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards tested aircraft with bathtub shapes where the fuselage functioned as a lifting body, negating the need for wings. Of the 200 flights over this period, Bill Dana, the first employee NASA hired in 1958, piloted a number of experimental designs including the M2F3, HL-10, and X-24B. He was the last to fly the X-15 in 1968. (Figure 11.)
Figure 11. Space Voyage illustration and autograph for evaluation of supersonic wingless shapes.
By the early 1970s, NASA had a reusable space shuttle on the drawing boards. It could rocket into orbit carrying a half dozen crew members for upwards of two weeks. With a payload bay big enough for a school bus and a Shuttle Remote Manipulator System (Canadarm) to manhandle satellites, the six-strong fleet of “space trucks” flew 135 times between 1981 and 2011.
From the shuttle era, 1974 until the Space Shuttle first flew to orbit in 1981, hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of developmental events have been documented philatelically. For example, “the most complicated machine ever built,” the orbiter, had a million parts, some at the temperature of liquid oxygen and others on the verge of melting.
Prior to the Space Shuttle, most spacecraft were single use. Now a vehicle could lift more than thirty tons of payload and place it in a precision orbit. Then this space plane would reenter the atmosphere (without burning up) and perform a dead stick landing on a runway. (Figure 12.)
Figure 12. Scale model testing and subsequent first captive flight of Enterprise.
Once the Orbiter Enterprise was completed in 1977, astronaut test pilots needed to evaluate it. As with conventional aircraft, these began with taxi tests of increasing speed to check steering and braking characteristics. These are followed by approach and landing tests flown after release from the back of a modified Boeing 747. (Figure 13.)
Figure 13. Centennial Covers documenting high speed taxi and brake testing.
On April 12, 1981 the day finally arrived. Twenty years to the day since Yuri Gagarin had become the first man in space, and a decade after Apollo, we had a new ship ready to fly. Unlike earlier programs, the Shuttle would not be “man-rated” by a series of unmanned missions. John Young, who had flown the first manned Gemini mission with Gus Grissom in March 1965, would take it up to “wring it out.”
With the exception of a weather abort resulting in a landing in New Mexico, the first four Shuttle flights went without a hitch. By 1982, the ejection seats were removed and the restriction that only the two test pilots fly was lifted. Mission Specialists and Payload Specialists began hitching a ride in November 1982. Satellites were launched, repairs in orbit completed, science experiments undertaken, and an International Space Station built from 1998 to 2011.
Figure 14. Teacher in Space program on STS-51L.
The next part of the story is one the world will never forget. (Figure 14.) In January 1986, hundreds of school classrooms watched as the first teacher in space, Christa McAuliffe, shot towards the sky. As a cruel lesson on the risk of spaceflight, Challenger exploded in flight, raining debris off the coast of Florida. All seven astronauts on board were lost. The rare Johnson Sea-Link cover accompanied a salvage crew recovering parts from a Solid Rocket Booster. (Figure 15.) In recovering the SRB wreckage, investigators were able to establish that a delay in pressurization of a field joint allowed hot gas to burn through and destroy the shuttle. In 2003, the first orbiter to reach space, Columbia, was also destroyed when a failure in the heat shield permitted friction from reentry to burn through the wing. All told there were 133 successful flights and two catastrophic ones.
Figure 15. Submersible which found the faulty SRB.
Only one astronaut ever flew the Shuttle manually all the way from orbit to touchdown. Joe Engle was an X-15 pilot who had been scheduled to be the last man to walk on the moon, before he was bumped to allow a geologist to explore the lunar surface. Engle then trained to fly the shuttle. When asked what it was like to fly, Joe said he could have closed his eyes and been back on final in the North American X-15. It was 1965, and he was returning from space traveling Mach 6.
This is called a Contractor cover. Key Support companies proud of their participation printed them to hand out as favors. In this case, The Radio Corporation of America supplied closed circuit television as well as communication required during orbiting space walks.
Ball, David S. American Astrophilately: The First 50 Years. A & A Publishing 2010
DeVorkin, David H. Race to the Stratosphere. Springer-Verlag 1989 Ellington, Jesse T. and Zwisler, Perry F. Rocket Mail Catalog. John W. Nicklin 1967
Hopferwieser, Walter M. Pioneer Rocket Mail & Space Mail 2019 https://www.f-i-p.ch/wp-content/uploads/Astrophilately.pdf
Intro to Exhibiting
In 2001, the parameters for exhibiting were restructured on a wide scale, which dramatically increased the types of exhibits deemed competitive. Fifteen years later, the 7th edition of the APS Manual of Philatelic Judging and Exhibiting (2016) eliminated previous exhibiting divisions and established uniform criteria to judge adult multi frame competitive exhibits at the national level within the United States.
At the American Philatelic Society’s Summer Seminar on Philately 2020 (held June 21 to 25), attendees can discover exhibiting at two different expertise levels. Ken Martin’s class “Introduction to Competitive Philatelic Exhibiting” will start at the beginning, teaching the basics for putting together a competitive exhibit. “Intermediate/Advanced Philatelic Exhibiting,” taught by Dr. Edwin J. Andrews, will include advanced techniques, in-depth discussions of guidelines, and group reviews of attendees’ exhibit examples.
For more details on exhibiting, we consider the following to be useful resources: The Philatelic Exhibitors Handbook (2006) by Randy L. Neil and Ada M. Prill; and the APS Manual of Philatelic Judging and Exhibiting (available for free download).
Editor's Note: This article was published in the January 2020 issue of The American Philatelist. Read the full issue online at stamps.org/the-american-philatelist