Thursday, August 04, 2011

The bizarre world of philately and space exploration

You don't have to hang around the space world for long to realise that there is a strange space-stamp connection going on. Stamps, first day covers, rocket mail, stamp-funded space research programmes, it's all there. My erudite Highland friend Fraser MacDonald is into it too, specialising in space stamps from 1933 to 1937 or something equally obscure.  Often when I'm looking for pictures of particular spacecraft, the only ones I can find are those on stamps.

And OK, I'm not entirely immune from this obsession myself - one of my most prized possessions is a large framed montage of space stamps in the shape of a rocket, made for me by one of my former students.

Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden this week released his autobiography, Falling to Earth. He and his fellow astronauts in this mission were given the boot by NASA because they made a secret deal with a German stamp collector to sell 100 of the 400 hundred first day covers they smuggled aboard (they were going to use the proceeds to set up trust funds for their children). It was not the first time that astronauts had taken such things into space, but for some reason NASA decided not to let them get away with it on this occasion.

The other interesting aspect of this is the special status accorded to objects that have been flown in space, whether they are human bodies, spacecraft debris, or souvenirs. Something that has been in space acquires a value that its unflown counterparts can never partake of. I'm quite interested in why this should be - I mean it's perfectly comprehensible at an instinctual level, but I think it takes the idea of the souvenir much further into the realms of fetish and talisman. First day covers are of course very light; and verifiable too, as they are linked to date, so perhaps this one reason why they (and coins) seem to feature frequently in this sort of collecting endeavour.

Just to illustrate, here's a lovely Europa first day cover, commemorating one of the the launches of the British-French-German rocket from Woomera in South Australia in 1966:

Fraser has written a fascinating piece about rocket mail in Brisbane in the 1930s, which you can read here.

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