Little things can sometimes have big and damaging effects on a mission. In the case of Apollo 15, the “little things with big consequences” were… postage stamps. It might be one of the stranger Apollo-era stories but the Apollo 15 crew put their careers in jeopardy over 298 postage stamps.
Articles flown in space have always been appealing to collectors, and taking collectables on missions was nothing new to astronauts. Apollo 15 took 250 envelopes with special issue space stamps to the moon. Commander Dave Scott had a cancellation device on hand and cancelled each stamp at Hadley Rille, the missions lunar landing point.
But memorabilia dealer Walter Eiermann saw the potential of selling these covers for profit and got the crew to take 300 more than the 250 they were authorized to carry. The idea was that Eiermann and each crewman — Scott was accompanied by command module pilot Al Worden and lunar module pilot Jim Irwin — would have 100 to sell after the mission. He also have the crew $7,000 for their troubles.
For whatever reason, the extra 400 covers were never documented. The crew claimed this was an innocent oversight but it’s a little hard to imagine how they could go unnoticed. Going to the moon isn’t as simple as packing your car and heading down the freeway. Weight was a serious issue. Every item taken to the moon had to be documented to make sure the mission wasn’t overweight. But the covers in Scott’s pocket were never recorded before launch.
Everything would have been fine had Eiermann not gotten over-zealous when he finally got his flown covers back after the crew returned on Aug. 7, 1971. He started selling them for $1,500 USD a piece in Europe, and it wasn’t long before US authorities got wind of what was happening. The crew tried unsuccessfully to recover the covers but NASA got there first; the agency also confiscated 298 of the 300 the crew had taken for themselves (two were destroyed before the flight).
In an attempt to save their careers, the astronauts returned the $7,000, but pressure from a congressional inquiry forced NASA to suspend the three men from flight status. They were also forced to sign an agreement saying they would never take memorabilia into space for personal profit again.
But the damage was done. Scott and Irwin transferred to other NASA centers before retiring while Worden briefly returned to Air Force active duty.
To prevent similar incidents on future flights, NASA drafted rules about what astronauts could take into space and stipulated that the contents of Personal Preference Kits (PPKs) couldn’t be publicized until they retired from the corps. Astronauts were also required to sign an agreement saying they wouldn’t give away flown memorabilia as either a gift or donations. Sale of memorabilia for whatever purpose was strictly prohibited.
The Apollo 15 covers didn’t resurface until 1983 when the U.S. Postal Service announced that 260,000 covers would fly on STS-8. Worden, to whom the similarities between his confiscated covers and those now sanctioned to fly on the shuttle, sued the government for the return of his crew’s 298 covers. The crew won and got their covers back in an out of court settlement.
The incident, strangely, was equally damaging for Jack Swigert’s career. During the congressional investigation into the Apollo 15 stamp incident, it came out that Swigert had taken a significant number of covers on his own mission, Apollo 13, then sold them for profit. When asked about this incident he refused (in some apparently very strong language) to say anything. This move didn’t exactly endear Swigert to then head of the astronaut office Deke Slayton. Slayton pulled Swigert permanently out of the flight rotation.
Like Scott, Worden, and Irwin, Swigert resigned shortly after losing his spot in the flight rotation. All over some postage stamps.
Image: The three Apollo 15 astronauts go through suiting up operations in the Kennedy Space Center’s (KSC) Manned Spacecraft Operations Building (MSOB) during the Apollo 15 prelaunch countdown. In the foreground is Commander David Scott, presumably with the stamp covers inside his suit. Credit: NASA