ISS: SPACE SHUTTLE AGE
First period of ISS activity is associated with the extensive usage of US Space Shuttle until its final mission of STS-135 in 2011. Mainly the Shuttle was tasked with the station assembly – from 36 flights to ISS 27 were assembly missions, the other 9 were mainly logistics with a 2 year gap following STS-107 Columbia disaster in 2003. Notably that after 2003 Space Shuttle was not delivering full ISS expedition crews but only one person for replacement and even not on each flight.
In terms of the covers – there is no change from the Mir age mission coverage – Russian postmarks include Baikonur launch-site, Korolev for mission control and tracking, Star City and Kazakhstan landing sites plus some Moscow special postmarks (if any). Space Shuttle flights as usual get Kennedy Space Center and/or Cape Canaveral for launches, Houston for mission control, GSFC for tracking and Edwards AFB or KSC for landings. There are nice pictorial cancellations from Houston devoted to ISS flights. I will always prefer to get at least one serviced cover for each US mission but those are not very common especially with applied postal codes.
In terms of the flown space mail these are basically the same Energia format covers carried 50-100 examples on each mission plus some private letters arranged by people with connections. There are some covers taken by Russian cosmonauts abroad US Space Shuttle missions, but those are very rare and I don’t have them in my collection.
One of the fancy things about collecting astrophilately is space letters. Basically two types of flown letters can be found – written to the cosmonauts and written by the cosmonauts. I mention only cosmonauts because American space crews do not participate in such kind of collector activities due to NASA policy limiting astronauts to give autographs. This is the reason that some flown covers can be found without astronaut signatures. Back to the letters – they are quite rare and looked by astrophilately collectors but you should be aware of fakes and “flown”-like items. Generally the letters are send to the cosmonauts then taken aboard the Soyuz spaceship to ISS, stamped/signed, sent back to Earth with the returning crew and back to the addressee. The process takes several months in average. Some dealers give the option of getting personal letters for $$$. In terms of the content – if it was not strictly personalized the letters are generally meaningless – sending greetings back and forth…
Here are two examples of letters from the same Visiting Expedition 4 arrived to ISS onboard Soyuz TMA-1. One was send from Houston to Star City to Sergey Zalyoutin then taken on Soyuz TMA-1 to ISS. This letter is addressed to Valery Korzun sending greetings from doctor A. Vasin. It has a very nice batch of onboard cancellations. Such letters have a definite collector orientation and were arranged by the dealers to be commercialized. Another example is a personalized letter written by Sergey Zalyotin in space and sent to Alex Panchenko – space memorabilia collector and dealer. Interesting point in Sergey’s letter that he mentions many collectors’ items he took aboard ISS and will return everything back to Earth as promised. Note much less colorful "space memorabilia" outfit and the half-cut ISS octagon seal - the other part is on the reverse of the cover, to get a 100% bond.
In order to be authenticated the letters bear ISS octagon seal and other stamped postmarks. Besides the relevant postmarks it is good to get such letters via known and trustworthy channels even if it will cost some extra $$$.
The covers used for such letters are general postal covers or some privately designed cachets. As usual they have all available ISS markings and the most important – octagon seal and postmarks with relevant dates. On some occasions official Energia covers are posted but these are more rare cases.
NASA Extreme Environment Mission Operations (NEEMO) is an undersea training session in Aquarius laboratory for astronauts to get prepared for EVA experience on ISS. Aquarius is an underwater habitat located 3.5 miles (5.6 kilometers) off Key Largo, Florida in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. It is deployed on the ocean floor next to deep coral reefs 62 feet (19 meters) below the surface.
The two Key Largo, FL postmarks mark 7 days underwater training mission of Sandra Magnus (Commander), Timothy Kopra, Robert Behnken and Timothy Creamer.
Soyuz TMA-15 launch Sergey Chizhov flown cover with signature of ISS 19 and 20 crews. Actually the ISS 19 spacemen remained to form the first large scale Expedition 20.
Gennady Padalka (ISS 19 / 20)
Michael R. Barratt (ISS 19 / 20)
Koichi Wakata (ISS 19 / 20)
Roman Romanenko (ISS 20)
Frank de Winne (ISS 20)
Robert B. Thirsk (ISS 20)
According to my correspondence with Sergey Chizhov – only 25 such flown covers were produced and sent with the crew to ISS.
Soyuz TMA-14 launch Sergey Chizhov flown cover with signature of partial ISS 18 and 19 crews. There is a logical mismatch on the cover - the cachet should show Koichi Wakata instead of Sandra Magnus as she was not present aboard ISS at the time of Soyuz TMA-14 docking.
Yuri Lonchakov (ISS 18)
Michael Fincke (ISS 18)
Sandra Magnus (ISS 18) not signed
Gennady Padalka (ISS 19 / 20)
Michael R. Barratt (ISS 19 / 20)
Charles Simonyi (Space Tourist)
50th anniversary of Yuri Gagarin flight received a lot of philatelic attention in Russia and was marked by appearance of the first ever onboard ISS special cancellation. Due to the exclusivity of the event many glitches occurred involving the usage of this first postmark. ITC Marka produced the seal and provided it to the Moscow central post office 101000. Director of the office had no idea what to do and how to proceed, so she addressed a group of known philatelists who generally spend a lot of time there. Moscow philatelists prepared covers and cards towards the anniversary and used the postmark to cancel them in March 2011.
There was an agreement not to show the cancelled items before the planed landing of the relevant crew. Unfortunately some “very enthusiastic” comrades cancelled the same cards with Moscow special cancellation on April 12, thus making it obvious the unauthorized ground usage. The next day it was provided to Roscosmos. Roscosmos failed to send it to ISS in time and provided on the closest occasion thus all the onboard cancellations were backdated. On summer 2011 the postmark device was returned to Earth and used to make another batch of “flown” covers, but has been slightly "corrected". The same time a fake “onboard” cancellation was crafted and used along the genuine one.
Moreover, Hermann Sieger’s company ordered 5 covers via Mezhkniga and according to some experts they were “cancelled” on a printer. So there is more mystery than expected.
This is one of the ground covers produced in Kaluga with a fake “onboard” postmark printed over Gagarin stamp. This is obvious in closer inspection. Nevertheless the cover is signed by Aleksandr Samokutyaev and Andrei Borisenko - Russian crew members of Soyuz TMA-21.