Charting the Area Program Via Postmarks and Stamps

This isn’t your common piece of air mail. Created to have a good time the twenty fifth anniversary of NASA, the small envelope left the Earth’s environment aboard the Area Shuttle Challenger in 1983. As a part of the cargo on the spacecraft’s STS-8 mission, the piece was considered one of solely ten to be signed by all 5 members of the Challenger crew. Upon the shuttle’s return, 5 of the signed envelopes have been offered to the President and Vice President of america, the Postmaster Basic, the Smithsonian Establishment and the NASA Administrator. The opposite 5 have been earmarked for the shuttle crew members themselves. However considered one of these envelopes was by no means acquired by its meant recipient—till it confirmed up on eBay, 38 years later.

Challenger Envelope

A lifelong stamp collector and writer of American Astrophilately: The First 50 Years, David Ball is considered one of this nation’s foremost consultants on objects like these: envelopes that may inform a narrative of area journey when postmarked close to launchpads and mission management facilities, and aboard restoration ships. When David noticed the STS-8 envelope—or “cowl,” within the parlance of philatelists—on eBay this previous March, he was surprised. 5 signatures have been there, clear and visual on David’s pc display. The postmarks have been there, too, confirming the shuttle’s launch date from the Kennedy Area Middle and its return to Earth one week later. Its itemizing on eBay, nevertheless, was a puzzle, and simply the type of problem that David discovered charming.

David was raised in Natick, Massachusetts, a bed room neighborhood about 20 miles west of Boston. He began accumulating stamps on the age of eight, when a tumble on his bicycle landed him within the hospital for 2 days. To maintain him occupied, his mom purchased him a stamp album. “She’d collected stamps when she was a younger lady dwelling in Trinidad,” David mentioned. “Significantly for somebody who’s introverted, accumulating postage stamps is only a fantastic lifelong companion. She’s been supportive of my accumulating actions for greater than 50 years now.” 

David with his mother Erica on Mothers Day 2021

David along with his mom, Erica, on Mom’s Day, 2021

As a younger boy, David loved studying journey tales about explorers, check pilots and astronauts. “I used to be born in 1959, so I used to be ten once they landed on the Moon,” he mentioned. So it was pure that his stamp accumulating pursuits would possibly bend towards the celebs.

In 1991, David was commissioned as a second lieutenant within the U.S. Air Pressure. Serving as a flight nurse for 26 years, he led medical groups transporting wounded troopers, many of their teenagers, from struggle zones in Iraq and Afghanistan to hospitals in Germany and the U.S. All of the whereas, he continued to avidly gather stamps.

Then in 2006, David traveled to the World Philatelic Exhibition in Washington, D.C., a world stamp present held within the U.S. as soon as each ten years. Whereas there, at a lecture about stratospheric balloon flights given by an esteemed Swiss collector, David discovered about astrophilately. Astrophilatelists aren’t all that involved about stamps with rockets on them, or about envelopes with photos of astronauts, though that’s a part of their area. For astrophilatelists, it’s all about monitoring the historical past of the area program via postmarked envelopes linked to varied launches and missions. “The mixture of locations and dates tells a narrative,” David mentioned. “Whenever you put a bunch of those envelopes collectively, you may present how stratospheric balloon flights made it attainable for us to have Venture Mercury, or how the X-15 made it attainable for us to have the Area Shuttle. Astrophilately is absolutely the intersection of area and postal historical past.” 

A protracted-time collector of stamps and lover of the historical past of area journey, David found a complete world and realm of research the place area journey was at its middle, however the stamps performed second fiddle. “The stamps are literally incidental,” he mentioned. “It’s actually all in regards to the postmark.”

At left: David holding the Moon cover cancelled by the Apollo 11 crew on the way back from the first manned lunar landing. The other envelope was postmarked by Dave Scott of Apollo 15 on the surface of the Moon. At right: Cover of “American Astrophilately: The First Fifty Years,” published in 2010.

At left: David holding the Moon cowl cancelled by the Apollo 11 crew on the way in which again from the primary manned lunar touchdown. The opposite envelope was postmarked by Dave Scott of Apollo 15 on the floor of the Moon. At proper: Cowl of “American Astrophilately: The First Fifty Years,” printed in 2010.

David was hooked. Astronauts, he quickly discovered, had been taking envelopes to the moon for the reason that Apollo 11 mission in 1969. For NASA, these covers have been an effective way to construct pleasure for the area program. Over time, a whole bunch of 1000’s of covers have been created, promoting for wherever from a greenback or two for the commonest ones to $30,000 for a signed Neil Armstrong cowl that’s been to the moon. The duvet David noticed final March was outstanding not solely due to its rarity—on the again of the envelope was a small numeral “3,” denoting it was one of many authentic ten signed covers—however due to its preliminary itemizing worth: $3.00.

The bids climbed rapidly from that preliminary low determine, as different astrophilatelists discovered of the uncommon discover. A good friend of David’s who had met Richard Actually, the astronaut and former U.S. Navy admiral who was Commander of the Challenger mission, thought the quilt would possibly belong to him. As luck would have it, David already knew the previous astronaut. Earlier this yr, the 2 had met on-line throughout a gathering of significant stamp collectors, when David, a first-time customer to the group, noticed a well-recognized identify among the many gathering. “Within the chat field I wrote, , your identify is similar as a well-known Navy check pilot,” David mentioned. “And he wrote again and mentioned, yeah, that’s me.”

So when the uncommon Challenger cowl appeared on eBay solely two months later, David reached out to Richard and requested if there was an opportunity the quilt was his. It was. For some motive, after the mission, NASA despatched out the covers however Richard by no means acquired his—paradoxically, since he was the lone stamp collector of the bunch. Because the bids rose, Ball let the shuttle commander know that if he received the public sale, he would promote the quilt to him for no matter he paid for it. 

In the long run, David received the crew-signed cowl with a bid of $1,801.76. He despatched the envelope to Richard, restoring the quilt to its rightful proprietor in spite of everything these years. “That’s a as soon as in a lifetime factor,” David mentioned. “I’ve by no means heard of considered one of these being supplied, and I doubt I’ll ever see one once more.”

The crew of the STS 8 mission on the shuttle in 1983 with Richard Truly holding the stamp cover. Image credit to NASA

The crew of the STS-8 mission on the shuttle in 1983, with Richard Actually holding the stamp cowl. Picture credit score: NASA

Not that David doesn’t produce other treasures in his assortment. He has a canopy that was despatched by a crew member of the Norge, an Italian-built blimp, which grew to become the primary plane to fly over the North Pole in 1926; and one from the Apollo 8 mission, the primary to go to the moon, which he purchased from a Navy corpsman who was aboard the usYorktown the day they fished the Apollo 8 astronauts out of the Pacific; and a canopy from the Prime Restoration ship that picked up America’s first astronaut, Alan Shepard—which additionally began at an preliminary bid of $3 on eBay and ended at $1,400, since there are solely 44 identified nonetheless current on the earth. Nearly daily, David is on eBay, looking for new finds. “It is perhaps 3 a.m., and I’ll be in search of canine sled mail, or covers associated to nuclear weapons,” he mentioned. “I purchase most of my postal historical past on eBay.” 

Certainly, eBay has been an infinite asset for David, and others like him. “For the collector, and notably for the specialist, it’s just like the world’s greatest stamp present—but it surely’s listed,” he mentioned. “If you concentrate on it, if I have been to point out up at a stamp present that was as large as eBay, I nonetheless couldn’t discover what I used to be in search of. With eBay, you’ve not solely taken me to the stamp present, you’ve additionally allowed me to run a pc search on the quilt and informed me to go to those three sellers. I’m even going to point out you an image of it. I imply, how fantastic is that? That’s a child in a sweet retailer.”