Notes on collecting ASTP covers
I have been collecting ASTP covers for a couple of years and decided to write these notes mostly for myself to frame the vision and trace the changes. In general from the first glance this subject does not differ from any other in astrophilately, but this is only the perception. In my opinion ANY topic in astrophilately has its “tips & tricks”. Moving forward and getting into the details I came to some interesting conclusions (probably interesting for myself only). To make collection interesting, not saying "unique", it is always about details and more you dig, more things yet have to be discovered – like a deep space adventure or deepwater diving (who likes what?). So I wanted to have my thoughts put on the paper and let them get some shape. Note, I am not FIP oriented, I do not want to build any exhibit or guide anyone towards philatelic glory and becoming a gold medalist – I just want to express a couple of ideas behind my collection and possibly it will be interesting not only to me.
Strategy and tactics
Although strategy looks obvious nevertheless it transformed while the experience was gained and deeper diving was done into the subject. My idea was to deal only with the countries that participated in the program, so I started from collecting (by then I should say gathering) ASTP covers from US and USSR. Well, it went good enough till I encountered a dilemma – tracking stations. These covers come from all around the world as by 1975 NASA used over a dozen overseas locations. Then came the communication mess – it came to me as a lightning strike – as of 1975 there were close to 100 Earth terminals serving INTELSAT communications - you can find this info in "NASA Compendium of Satellite Communications Programs" by Goddard Space Flight Center; and until now I have no idea which of them have been really serving ASTP needs (I am not sure – anybody does). So when we come back to the strategy it has expanded to the countries that actually took part in the project and its support. I frankly believe that there is no crime to make a slip to one side or another if the story suites your imagination and I will elaborate later.
Tactics is very simple – it is basically the way you cover this or that point. This very tactics are responsible for the depth of the details your eager to dive inside and how your collection will look by the end of the day. “WOW” is a great feeling, but it does not last for long, the excitement peaks only at the point of acquisition and several minutes after you receive the item, then come the question – what next??? When you finally get your first USS New Orleans PRS cover it looks like the gap is closed, but on the other hand the “Pandora box” is just opened and there are much more to explore in the ASTP recovery field (if you do not believe me, ask Dr. Ross Smith). And this is all about the tactics. It happened to me and possibly many others who are building topical collection and dealing with routine stuff that comprises almost 95% of the inventory and I found it quite exciting matter as even with common things you can have an interesting story. By the way, this is a good idea to have the story written, so you can adjust it according to new additions and shape the tactics accordingly. My tool is the website that I find very useful.
Exclusivity is perceived by many as possession of a very unique stuff. In ASTP field it can be only the 25 flown covers taken aboard by Valery Kubasov and signed by all five spacemen with appropriate inscriptions. This is great but the chance I get such cover is well beyond my philatelic horizon though I strongly believe I will have it someday. Taking it to the other side - your personal collection exclusivity can be built by creating the story behind it. You can focus on the cachet makers and reveal interesting things as well as ASTP Soviet club covers that are quite uncommon; on the other hand there can be a unique cancellation or batch of signatures on a serviced cover. In any case, I believe the main idea is to be continues, precise and patient. While adding this or that artifact to collection you shape it as well as you adjust the tactical goal to suit your needs and resources. The latter will be discussed separately. Note, this is wonderful idea to keep up with great collectors and I was keen to do so as well, but you cannot cover the gap of decades in one shot, thus it is good to have an example and direction, especially when most of the great guys are friendly associates and very helpful in public and private communications. I personally appreciate a great help from Walter Hopferweiser and Bob McLeod.
Cachets and Cachet Makers
Good, we got to the point when all the ASTP support entities and assets are covered, e.g. we have all the respective covers or moving in the right direction - now what??? I found it reasonably exciting to explore the field of cachets and designers. There are two major sections – cachet series done by recognizable cachet makers and loose ASTP cachets. Note that the division is not linear and the borders are quite vague once you discover there is a series of continues covers from the same source. The famous and very common sets are Fleetwood, Colorano, SCCS, Space Voyage, Beck and others less known are Orbit, Astro, Karcher, Bob Whitney and Ross Foil. These are just examples from what I know. The main attribute of cachets in my understanding is rarity and this is not only about the money, it is about how easy or fast you can find it. I have been monitoring ebay.com and some other web auctions very closely for a couple of years and there are still some cachets that I’ve seen only on the forums. This does not mean they are rarities; just got no chance to have them till now. Surprisingly I found that some cachet makers excel in producing ASTP cachets, for example Robert Rank known under the brands of Space Voyage and First Rank (plus some others not relevant to ASTP) created over 70 variations! Ray Novak, more familiar as Colorano Silk and Philgraf brands produced over 20 ASTP designs with the help of Italian artist Tenzi. Unfortunately many cachet makers are not with us anymore and it is very hard to get some info about them but piece by piece I manage to combine this kind of a story. The greatest help come from collectSpace.com and its inhabitants. Thanks Robert for the great resource!
There are several things you need to keep in mind while getting Russian covers for ASTP – in contrarily to US and due to a heavy secrecy of Soviet space program, the “relevant postmark” principle is not working. Soviet postmarks are available for a limited number of locations namely – Moscow, Baikonur, Star City and Kaluga with some additions of Gagarin town and Araklyk (Soyuz landing site). By the way Baikonur ASTP special postmark was the first ever Baikonur dedicated event cancellation. Now besides official covers that were very limited, there are a number of so called “club” covers, though most of them are not really club , as “club” age was over by almost a decade ago with rare exceptions like Tartu, but private initiatives. The essence of “club” covers generally ignores the “relevant postmark” idea – it is all about giving respect from this or that local philatelic enthusiasts to particular event. Soviet inventory also includes some forgeries that I consider a part of ASTP philatelic history. The most well-known is undoubtedly Baikonur postmarks that are still in good demand by collectors despite numerous denouncements by astrophilatelic society. In addition to official and club stuff there are well known Mezhkniga arrangements and dual cancellations (or “combo” covers) mostly sponsored by German dealers like Eberhard Coelle – Thanks to David Ball for revealing this amazing story. On the other hand there are still many questions regarding this or that combination and “philatelic purity” of Mezhkniga produced cancellations. So be ready that Soviet ASTP inventory is much much less in numbers than its US counterpart. I’ve seen some attempts to close the gap like printing ASTP related cachets and inscription on non-related Soviet space covers but all those looked quite inappropriate and easily identified.
Besides the flight time ASTP inventory there are many covers that represent related events like commemorations, exhibitions, anniversaries and other excitement. After 90s when USSR was deleted from the map and no regulation applied to postal covers and cards, many Russian private cachets appeared. There is also a good idea to follow US postmarks history as ASTP was mentioned from time to time especially on the round anniversaries in 1985, 1995 and 2005 and philatelic events around the flight. Note, it pays back to look for dedicated covers and not only the postmarks, as most such events had well designed cachets. The possible exception is 1992 with joint US – Russian issue dedicated to the International Space Year that produced a massive number of ASTP related covers. Talking about Russian inventory, the peak took place in 2015, the 40th anniversary of flight, with many private cachets, Moscow official cancellation plus Baikonur special postmark and its apogee was an ISS onboard postmark stamped to a several dozens of specially prepared covers. I was lucky to get a letter from Gennady Padalka in such cover serviced from Star City to US bearing all three ISS postmarks – ISS octagon, calendar postmark and special ASTP cancellation.
So, what is it about? Currently I have more than 850 various ASTP covers in my inventory and anticipate that there are a couple of hundreds more to get. The main resource of acquisition is ebay.com plus some other online trading grounds in Europe and Russia. In any case there should be a reasonable budget allocated for continues purchases although not as high as for the early space covers signed by the crews. Sometimes there are packages of ASTP covers available from German dealers containing 100 and even more. According to my experience there is barely a chance to get anything exclusively interesting inside, but it can be a good gap-filling tactics for the common stuff or just a beginning. If you collect signed covers (that I am not, though there are some of them in my inventory) you should explore further the autopen issue and get a couple of good autographed covers from reputable dealers to have something to compare with, as there are a lot of fakes and copies coming from Russia for instance. So approaching the end of this note, for me ASTP cover collecting is all about the story behind the covers. Most of the stuff is cheap all-around covers that do not worse much as standalone, but make a good appearance as a team.
HAPPY ASTP COVER COLLECTING!
“All about postmark”
This is the thesis of astrophilately and well reflected in ASTP topic – almost any (if not every) event in the project got its appropriate attention and servicing. Here I refer to the serviced covers mostly done by a handful of great men. The areal of the ASTP postmarks is far beyond Cape Canaveral, Houston and Kennedy Flight Center. It can be found as far as astronauts’ hometowns, tracking ships homeports and Saturn launch vehicle production and testing facilities. So be prepared to explore further. Sometimes the cancellations are frankly irrelevant as “local post” issues – what the heck happened in town “Z” in September 75? Nothing! It is just a cover with ASTP theme and I have to accept it or avoid in my collection – the odds are even – to be or not to be! My good story is a “blessing” series from Vatican and Jerusalem – also not very convenient for me at least, the blessings for ASTP missions were promoted on respectful covers from both confessions with appropriate postmarks. In this case it is generally up to you whether to have it or not. Note that sometimes servicing was not possible on the date and place for example recovery and tracking ships. As for PRS USS New Orleans the story is quite clear – its post-office was closed on the date of Apollo splashdown, Jul 24, thus majority of the covers got stamped the next day. Tracking ships covers is a virtual illusion – all of them where in the open sea having no PO onboard thus all of the covers just trying to have a “closest possible” postmark and in many cases it is really confusing. One good example is USNS Vanguard that stationed between New Zealand and Australia though the covers exist with Cape Canaveral, Hawaii, Canal Zone and NY postmarks.