Apollo 15 postage stamp incident
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The crew of Apollo 15 took 398 unauthorized commemorative postage stamp covers with them on their trip to the Moon (400 were printed, but two were damaged and destroyed prior to being packaged), with the understanding that, when they returned, 100 of the covers were to be sold to the German stamp dealer who provided them. Those 100 covers are known today by philatelists as the "Sieger covers", named such after the dealer, Hermann Sieger. The remaining 298 covers were to be kept by the crew members as souvenirs but were later confiscated by NASA when the public sale of Sieger's covers was discovered soon after the mission. The crew's 298 covers were not returned until 1983, after the astronauts filed suit against the government for their return, citing NASA's partnership with the U.S. Postal Service to sell covers flown on the Space Shuttle.
Although taking souvenirs into space was not illegal nor prohibited by NASA at the time—the Apollo 15 crew had 243 authorized covers on board in addition to the 398 unauthorized covers—the discovery of the Sieger covers' sale caused Congress to take notice and led to NASA taking disciplinary action against several Apollo astronauts, including Apollo 15 commander David Scott, who admitted to carrying the stamps, and Jack Swigert, who was not involved in the incident directly but was less than forthcoming when asked to provide information to investigators about the practice of carrying souvenirs aboard spacecraft. Scott was already working on the docking system for the upcoming Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. Apollo 15 crewmember Alfred Worden was reassigned to a non-flight role within NASA and crewmember James Irwin resigned to pursue a Christian ministry in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Congressional questioning of NASA officials over the affair was a further source of embarrassment for the agency.
While Scott and his crewmates were preoccupied with their final training for the mission, a controversy developed within NASA and Congress over some of the souvenir silver medallions that the crew of Apollo 14 had carried to the moon with them. Before the mission an agreement had been reached with the Franklin Mint that some of the medallions were to be melted down upon the return to Earth and sold as souvenirs; the mint had even promoted this in ads. But it was never finalized; however, Astronaut Corps commander Deke Slayton reduced the amount of medallions each member of Apollo 15 could take along by half.
One night several months before launch, Slayton introduced Scott and the crew to a German stamp dealer who proposed that they supplement their income by signing some first day covers for the launch date. They would not be sold, the astronauts were told, until some time in the future after the Apollo program had ended. Other Apollo crews had made, and profited from, similar agreements. Since they were not permitted to buy life insurance, the astronauts felt that the proceeds might be a good substitute, and agreed to the deal, putting the proceeds into a trust fund for their children's education.
The crew took 398 covers to the moon with them (two of the planned 400 were damaged). Later it was alleged that these had been smuggled on board. In his 2013 book Two Sides of the Moon, Scott says that was impossible as the astronauts had to account for everything they took on board, including personal items. Instead of personally certifying the Apollo 15 crews as he usually did, Slayton deferred to the flight-support crew, according to Scott. The support team's manifest did not include the covers.
Once the mission was over a German stamp dealer began selling the first day covers immediately. The astronauts objected and said they did not want the money. When the sales were reported in the press some members of Congress became angry that they heard about them first that way, instead of from NASA itself, especially in the wake of the Apollo 14 medallion incident. Slayton claimed in his autobiography that he felt Scott, Worden and Irwin had embarrassed NASA and the Apollo program by trying to profit in such way from the hard work that had gone into the Apollo 15 mission, and violated NASA rules.
However, they were not expelled from the astronaut corps, as some reports claimed at the time. Scott wrote later that a "witch hunt" mentality took hold. The astronauts were advised to retain independent legal counsel before testifying at a closed Senate hearing on the matter. "NASA had hung us out to dry," he wrote. Despite an expectation that they, too, would refuse to talk and invoke their Fifth Amendment rights at the hearing, "we told it like it was. We had nothing to hide."
A few years later Scott retired from the Air Force, and then left NASA. In 1978 the Justice Department concluded that while the crew had broken some space-agency rules, they did nothing illegal. The covers were legal, they had not been intended for sale, the crew had not smuggled them on board and NASA would have approved letting them do so had they been asked. "We were reprimanded and took our licks. But it was a very raw deal," recalls Scott. There had been complaints about the deals undertaken by previous missions, but "the wave reached the shore on Apollo 15 and we were the ones who bore the brunt of the blame for such incidents."
Usually a flight's backup crew would be made up of the crew of a future flight, so that their training would eventually be used. Apollo 17, however, was to be the last flight in the Apollo program, and NASA assigned the Apollo 15 crew to be the Apollo 17 backup. This meant that some or all of the Apollo 15 crew could conceivably return to the Moon a second time. The postage stamp incident removed them from flight status, and another backup crew was assigned, one astronaut from Apollo 14 and two from Apollo 16.
Al Worden recounted his participation in the "flown covers" controversy in his 2011 autobiography: Falling to Earth: An Apollo 15 Astronaut’s Journey to the Moon; he also detailed how this incident forced him out of the astronaut program, and how he later successfully sued the U.S. government in retrieving the covers after they had been surrendered pending a congressional investigation.
The market value of these postal covers has climbed steadily over the years, given their rarity and broad appeal to both space and stamp collectors. As an example, one Apollo 15 postal stamped cover sold at the January 2008 Novaspace auction for US$15,000.
- U.S. space exploration history on U.S. stamps#Space Achievement Decade Issue of 1971 (Apollo 15 mission commemorated)
- Scott, David; Leonov, Alexei (2013). Two Sides of the Moon: Our Story of the Cold War Space Race. MacMillan. pp. 385–388. ISBN 9781466859272. Retrieved December 17, 2013.
- Deke Slayton. Deke!. ISBN 978-0-312-85918-3.
- "Flown. From The Dave & Tracy Scott Collection". Highlights from the upcoming Novaspace auction. January 26th, 2008. Arizona Challenger Space Center. Novaspace. Retrieved 2010-06-26.
- "Auction Results". Novaspace. Retrieved 2010-06-26. "Lot Number 391. Surface flown Apollo 15 cover. $15000.00."
- When America Went To The Moon from U.S. News
- NASA News Release 72-189, "Articles Carried on Manned Space Flights" from collectspace.com