Fifty years ago, in the early hours of February 21, 1962 (Sydney time), NASA astronaut John Glenn became the first American to orbit the Earth, on board his Mercury spacecraft Friendship 7. Although two previous Mercury missions had flown brief sub-orbital flights, achieving orbit was an important goal for the US space program at that point in the Cold War contest of the Space Race. The Soviet Union had already launched two orbital missions in its Vostok program: the first had put Yuri Gagarin into orbit as the world’s first space traveller; the second had seen Cosmonaut Gherman Titov spend an entire day in space. To maintain credibility in the Space Race, America had to demonstrate that it, too, had the capability to put an astronaut into orbit.
The propaganda significance of the Friendship 7 mission for the United States can be seen in the fact that for the first time in its history, the United States Post Office Department (as it was then known, now the U.S. Postal Service) issued a stamp commemorating the achievement on the very same day that the spaceflight took place. Designed, printed and distributed in absolute secrecy, the “Project Mercury” 4c stamp was placed on sale in 305 selected post offices across the United States within an hour of John Glenn’s safe splashdown at the conclusion of his three orbit flight.
Commemorative stamps are normally issued some time after an event, when the postal authorities have had time to asses its national significance and ‘worthiness’ to be memorialised on a stamp. The Soviet Union had already proved itself adept at recognising and exploiting the propaganda value of commemorating its space activities on stamps issued soon after the missions took place: the first stamps celebrating Gagarin’s historic spaceflight were issued just two months later, in June 1961.
In the heat of the Space Race, the importance of an American orbital spaceflight was self-evident to the US postal authorities and prior to Glenn’s flight it was decided to produce a stamp to honour the achievement, for immediate release upon the successful completion of the first orbital mission. The stamps were produced in time for the original intended December 1961 launch of Friendship7 and then remained under wraps until the flight was actually accomplished in February. On the day, a temporary post office to manage the official release of the stamp was established at the launch site at Cape Canaveral, with the stamps going on sale there at 3.30pm on the afternoon of February 20. The unanticipated release of the stamp took US space philately collectors by surprise, such that even today some are still trying to complete collections of examples of the postmarks from each of the 305 locations at which the stamps were released. More details of the fascinating story of this “clandestine” stamp issue, the secrecy surrounding its production and the quest for release-day postmarks can be found on the CollectSpace website.
The museum has a number of examples of this stamp within the E.A. and V.I. Crome philatelic collection. “Ernie” Crome was a pioneer of aerophilately in Australia and considered space exploration as a logical extension of his interest in flight. He amassed large collections in these areas which he sold or generously donated to the Museum. The astrophilatelic material in his collection is extremely comprehensive for the first 25 years of spaceflight, 1957-82, but also includes examples of earlier items relating to rocketry and some later stamps, first day covers and ephemera relating to space missions. Because Mr. Crome had a habit of buying up thematic collections already put together by others, the museum’s collection includes a number of different examples of John Glenn/Friendship 7 first day covers. Here are two more, in addition to the one above. All were postmarked at Cape Canaveral on February 20 and were probably purchased from philatelic dealers.
One of my personal areas of interest is the use of propaganda iconography in Cold War astrophilately and I have always been struck by the contrast between the simplicity of the design of the Project Mercury stamp and the early Soviet space stamps such as those illustrated above. The Soviet stamps are loaded with communist symbols, heroic imagery and expressions of praise for Soviet science and technology. The Mercury stamp, by comparison, offers a simple, clear illustration that says ‘America has a crewed spacecraft in orbit’. I have often wondered if the understated Mercury design was intended as a deliberate counterpoint to the overt propaganda imagery of the Soviet stamps: America presenting itself as a ’quiet achiever’ in contrast to the bluster and hype of communist propaganda?