Space scandal: The letters that were never meant to reach the moon

Written by Tom | 22 September 2022

Back in July 1971, the astronauts of Apollo 15 carried approximately 400 unauthorised postal covers – envelopes with stamps and addresses on them – into space in a bid to make profit and support their families at home, with what would be coveted collector’s items. What followed was years of public fallout; with NASA, the astronauts, the United States government and a mysterious German seller all involved. Expert in Stamps Jean-Eudes Schoppmann recounts one of the more scandalous chapters in stamp history.  

Soon after David Scott of Apollo 15 splashed down on earth near Honolulu, Hawaii, on 7 August 1971, he did something peculiar. His crewmates and him were to be picked up by helicopters from the carrier USS Okinawa and transported back to the ship, yet his mind was elsewhere. He’d just transported a batch of unauthorised postal covers into space and was keen to get them stamped, cancelled and ready for distribution. He wrote to the postal office at the Kennedy Space Centre to have a series of stamps sent to the Okinawa.

By 20 August, the post office confirmed they could send these. Not long later, Scott and his crewmates had affixed stamps onto approximately 398 postal covers —it’s believed two were destroyed pre or mid-flight — and autographed them; 298 postal covers that were to be held onto, and 100 soon to be sold for profit. What the astronauts didn’t know was the postal covers weren’t just for them to make money off – in fact, the stamps dealer purchasing the covers planned to sell them to the world.  

The launch of the Apollo 15, . Wikimedia Commons

“The Apollo 15 postal covers incident still remains so scandalous because it reduced a mission with a scientific purpose, that was at the forefront of the American public’s conscience, to a financial operation”, explains Expert in Stamps Jean-Eudes. “The astronauts could never have known what the consequences would be in terms of optics and how they would be viewed. But as a result, NASA was embarrassed and was seen to have shown a lack of judgement; just one reason why the affair was escalated to the Senate committee who eventually had to rule on the situation”.

The stamps universe is no stranger to a little media attention. It's been the subject of forgery and documented some of humanity’s greatest feats and disasters. Yet this public dispute which was referred to as the 'Sieger covers' stands out as one of the murkier but no less fascinating chapters in stamp history, as much for what occurred as for what would follow. At a time when interest in the space race was at its peak, any event that threatened to reflect poorly on American success and NASA’s integrity was potentially destabilising. And the stamp covers proved to do just that. 

The rise of astrophilately

Stamps and space might seem like disparate worlds but from the mid-twentieth century, earth and space began to overlap. In the United States and around the world, there existed a long-held tradition of issuing commemorative stamps to document significant moments in history, and this soon covered the advent of space travel. These stamps were often authorised and commissioned by the national postal body, and distributed as limited editions to the public. From 1948 onwards, space stamps or ‘astrophilately’ as it’s more technically known, became hugely popular collector’s items; particularly in the US where the public was driven by an interest in space travel and a cult of heroism around the astronaut figure. 

“Astrophilately was a new realm for stamps but one that reflected the same old earthbound tensions. It was a way of celebrating a nation’s achievements but also lauding them over others in a very public way. If you consider the geopolitical context and tensions between the USSR and USA, space was a kind of neutral area they had to conquer and promote their respective technologies. By sending a letter there, you were making yourself a part of history”. 

These stamps depicted anything from satellites to astronauts, in a bid to commemorate all that was going on in the space race. These were sought after by the public and perhaps more crucially, the astronauts themselves. 

#252 of 300 letters that made it into space without NASA's approval. Wikimedia Commons. 

The astronauts at NASA, however, were subject to strict protocols and while they could take items as part of their Personal Preference Kits (PPK), these all needed to be pre-approved by NASA. However, NASA was not unwise to the fact that astronauts might want to take souvenirs into space and that there was some novelty to be found in allowing certain items into space, as much for commemoration as recognition. 

As a result, postal covers were commissioned in commemoration of various space travels. “Postal covers are essentially letters that have been addressed and stamped”, says Jean-Eudes. “It is very popular as a collection theme because you can focus on destinations, stamps used, ways of transport etc”. Covers were made celebrating the launch of Apollo 11, 13 and 14; many of which were taken into space and held onto the astronauts as mementos. That, however, was all about to change. 

A deal in the dark

Years before Apollo 15 launched in 1971, the machinations of backroom business dealings was already afoot. A businessman called Horst Eiermann – who according to a New York Times article published in 1972 was a one-time NASA contractor and a naturalised American who later moved to Stuttgart, Germany – had been pushing schemes for years. In fact, he had attempted to get the crews of Apollo 7 (1968) and Apollo 13 (1970) to smuggle a range of signed philatelic items aboard for a fee believed to be around $2,500. However, this never materialised. 

Come 1971 and the launch of Apollo 15, things were different. Eiermann had recently met German stamp seller Hermann Sieger, who would become the brains of the lunar covers operation. Sieger proposed the idea of getting postal covers to the moon with Eiermann – who was used as the conduit and facilitator between Sieger and the astronauts – while harbouring plans to sell off the covers at a later date. 

The crew of Apollo 15. Left to right: Dave Scott, Alfred Worden, James Irwin. 

Eiermann succeeded in schmoozing the crew of Apollo 15, courtesy of his NASA links. The crew, which included James Irwin, David Scott, and Alfred Worden were offered a fee in the range of $7000 to carry 100 covers for Sieger, and 300 for themselves, intended as gifts. Irwin and Worden, who were heading into space for the very first time, were made assurances that this was standard practice for astronauts to take part in and that the postal covers wouldn’t be sold. 

This wasn’t a transparent transaction though; rather than explain their true motivations, Sieger and Eiermann played on the familial concerns of the NASA crew to secure the deal, promising that this could be money put towards supporting the astronauts’ families at home. Eiermann and Sieger played up the changes in NASA’s employment policy and the rescinded benefits for the astronauts too; it came at a time when the astronauts allegedly no longer received life insurance, meaning the postal covers could be used as collateral in the event of disaster. The astronauts agreed, setting in motion a blurry legal dispute to come. 

Eiermann was in charge of instructing the various parties – and there were many involved – on how to prepare the covers. The task of the astronauts was to postmark – stamp the envelopes to prevent re-use – the morning of the Apollo 15 launch and later on the recovery carrier USS Okinawa, as well as a provide a notarised signed statement on the legitimacy of the covers, which Sieger claimed would boost the covers’ selling appeal.

Scott cancelling an authorised cover on the moon. Wikimedia Commons. 

On 26 July 1971, all went to plan, but it was through a few happy accidents and oversights that they did, explains Jean-Eudes. “Alongside the unauthorised covers, a known batch of 144 postal covers was authorised by NASA and the crew’s supervisor Derrick Slayton, and were carried by Worden. When Scott submitted the unauthorised covers to be cancelled at the Kennedy Space station the day of the launch, James C Fletcher – the deputy in charge of checking each astronaut's PPK – claimed he confused the 400 unauthorised postal covers with the authorised ones”. 

Scott and his crew flew into space, with the unauthorised covers tucked in his suit. And on 7 August 1971, the crew touched down in Honolulu – this time with a batch of postal covers that had been to the moon and back. 

The legal fallout

Even before Eiermann and Sieger hatched their plans, NASA had already established rules on what and what was not allowed to be taken into space. As of 1965, items carried into space needed to be approved by the crew’s supervisor, in this case Donald “Deke” Slayton. Slayton was known for his iron-clad grip and control of the crew’; a trait that would later rear its head in court and highlight the dubious nature of how the astronauts managed to get the postal covers to space. 

While the astronauts managed to successfully complete their part of the deal by signing and taking the covers to space, they weren’t quite prepared for the speed in which Sieger would move to sell the covers intended for him. Mere days after Scott sent Eiermann 100 covers on 2 September, the latter passed these onto Sieger who put them up for sale. He put a price marker of $1,500 per cover and sold all but one come November that year, which he kept for himself. 

The astronauts meanwhile, had planned a European trip for the Apollo 15 in November, which soon took a more ominous turn. The 298 covers the astronauts kept for themselves were left to a Houston printer to certify and hold onto, however, as Scott and co were heading to Germany to receive the $7,000 promised to them by Sieger for the 100 gifted, they got wind of the fact that Sieger had already sold his covers. A later testimony by Scott in court revealed that it was at this time that he went to Eiermann to confirm if this was true. Irwin, in his autobiography, claims that it was then that Scott said to him that they were in trouble. When Sieger’s sale of the covers was confirmed to Scott and co, the astronauts returned the money to Eiermann for the postal covers, but it was too late. 

A voice transcript taken from Apollo 15 of a conversation between the astronauts about signing the covers. Wikimedia Commons.

The European philatelic community was rife with the news of these sought-after covers and it wasn’t long before American media picked this up. In March 1972, after a space stamp group by the name of Space Topics Study Group contacted NASA to confirm the authenticity of the covers, the astronauts' hushed-up plan began to splinter. Slayton was aware of the 144 covers being transported to space by Worden – he wasn’t aware, he claimed, of the 400 hidden in Scott’s suit. In his autobiography Deke! (1994), Slayton not only confirms he confronted the astronauts but described the situation as “a regular goddamn scandal” and that he was furious with the team – so furious he removed them from future Apollo crews. Slayton, however, was blurry in his own external communications following that; having neglected to tell the space stamps group who set the publicity in motion that the stamps taken into space were unauthorised, nor did he communicate to his deputy heads the action he was taking against the astronauts.

A NASA investigation and congressional inquiry was to follow. A lengthy and arduous legal dispute that pitted the astronauts against NASA. The astronauts, while acknowledging they acted thoughtlessly in not declaring the postal covers, claimed they weren’t aware any postal covers were going to be used for commercial purposes. NASA meanwhile found itself embroiled in a very public dispute that damaged its credibility. The postal covers dispute suggested that NASA didn’t know what the astronauts it employed were doing, nor what exactly was being taken aboard the shuttles.  

Irwin with the Lunar Rover. NASA wanted to showcase this kind of exploration, not scandal surrounding its astronauts. Wikimedia Commons.

NASA officials above Slayton like administrators George M. Low and boss Christopher C. Kraft approached the astronauts, who all admitted to taking the postal covers aboard but maintained they didn’t seek to sell them off – though the fact that they sought profit in the first place conflicted with NASA’s existing regulations. More than seeking the truth though, what NASA wanted was to make a public display of the punishment and prevent any further damage to the government agency’s image. After all, this was an extremely costly mission and space travel was at the forefront of the public’s mind, and the government’s increasingly globalist image. 

Consequently the astronauts were disciplined and told in July 1972, that it was unlikely they would ever fly again. They never did.  

Guilty parties or collateral damage?

The central question that remained after the Apollo 15 postal covers incident was this: was there any real wrongdoing? It raised a question of ethics and how a public servant like an astronaut — with almost celebrity appeal — should conduct themselves, says Jean-Eudes. “The fact is that after all the courts and legal issues, they never had the chance to put the money to direct personal use. Of course, it does sound wrong to try to profit off such a mission but it was perceived by some that they were being punished for behaviour that wasn’t new to NASA”. 

This was certainly how David Scott felt and why years later, the astronauts were eventually exonerated. Scott was involved in another case, that of the Fallen Astronaut – a sculpture left on the moon by the Apollo 15 crew – which again invited attention to NASA as to how they could let things like this slip by. The attention revealed years of astronauts taking personal items into space and led to a call by NASA for every astronaut to return possessions, like the covers to the agency, under the premise that it was government property. This was resisted by many; astronauts had long profited off autographed collectables like covers or simply held onto mementos, however the media attention and outcry meant this was a changed space. In the case of the covers, NASA confiscated all 298. 

Stamps might have been the focus of the entire incident but it cast both astronauts and NASA in a new light. Wikimedia Commons. 

But they weren’t prepared for what was to come next. In 1978, after years of reviewing, testimonies and grilling by the Justice Department, the government declared that they could not forcibly hold onto the 298 covers, under the guise that these covers were meant as gifts and not for profit. They also concluded that NASA officials had been guilty of negligence; how was it that for so long, things like this were left unreported to senior officials? “Part of this was true”, says Jean-Eudes. “But part of the government’s tactic was believed to be motivated by the sheer unpopularity of putting the astronauts on trials”. Worden, one of the original Apollo 15 crew members, eventually sued NASA when he heard about plans by the US Postal Service to fly thousands of covers to space. He wanted the covers returned to him and his colleagues. And in 1983 they were; by default, clearing the names of the Apollo 15 crew, at least in the eyes of the public.

Yet the astronauts suffered years of prejudice by newer astronauts, as did older NASA astronauts associated with times prior to Apollo 15. Their image had been tarnished by the cheapness of money and how they had, even in small ways, profited; something that jarred with the virtuous image of the astronaut. But in 2009, Worden was awarded NASA's Ambassador of Exploration Award in a redemptive act; an award which recognised that even after the fallout from the covers and his case against them, his achievements in space were undeniable. 

To this day, the Apollo 15 covers are scattered all over the world, in people’s homes and in various auction houses The Sieger covers in particular are sought after and continue to turn up from time to time. To many, they are ordinary envelopes and to some they are ones that speak of otherworldly realms. But to those in the know, these postal covers are a reminder of how even the smallest player can shake up a universe – and serve as proof that whether you’re up in space or down on earth, the truth always finds its way to the surface. 


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