On February 20th, 1962, John Glenn slipped the surly bonds of Earth and became the first American to orbit our little blue planet. His spacecraft, Friendship 7, spent just under 5 hours outside Earth’s atmosphere, and as he splashed down, ending the historic event, a specialized government team put into action a secret series of events…the release of a brand-new postage stamp.
As the launch approached, the US Post Office began to plan for their commemoration of the historic event on a postage stamp. Because producing a postage stamp for general release was, and still is, a large undertaking, the Post Office had to begin the setup process well ahead of the launch itself. Spaceflight was still in its infancy, so the possibility of a failure of the launch was quite high. An earlier launch attempt in January was scrubbed due to a fuel tank leak, and the complication of orbiting left a number of unknowns that could result in trouble. Wanting to avoid releasing a postage stamp commemorating a tragic accident, the Post Office kept the design and production process a secret from nearly everyone except a few hundred people on a “need-to-know” basis. The stamp doesn’t directly refer to Glenn’s flight, but commemorates the entire Mercury spaceflight program, the objective of which was manned orbital flight. Glenn’s orbit and safe return marked the success of the Mercury program, and the stamp would commemorate that result.
Engraver Charles Chickering was enlisted to produce the print-ready image, but he couldn’t work on it during the normal day’s work. Chickering went on “vacation”, as far as his coworkers at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing knew, and he worked on the stamp’s design after hours to avoid being seen. His design depicted, in blue and yellow, the Friendship 7 capsule orbiting the Earth, under the harsh light of the sun. The printing of Chickering’s stamp was explained as a new super-secret printing process, using a brand-new Giori press, and only people with the right level of security could see it. Finally, once the first run of stamps was produced, they were shipped to post offices to the attention of the postal inspector, rather than the postmaster, due to the inherent secretiveness of the inspector’s position.
The Post Office’s secret plan was largely successful. Some rumors of an unannounced postage stamp release made it out, but for the most part the philatelic community was surprised by the sudden radio and television announcement of a new postage stamp commemorating spaceflight, available at that very minute. People dashed out to the post office to line up to buy their stamps, sheets, and first-day postmarks.
After the initial secret printing, over 280 thousand more Mercury stamps were printed due to the enormous popularity of the stamp. Those first stamps, released on the day of Glenn’s flight, are a rare commodity today. Because the stamps were only sent to 305 post offices, there are only a limited number of stamps verifiable by the first-day of issue postmarks. The first-day cancellations weren’t made by default, and the franking only occurred on request, so 20 of smaller post offices either never produced any first-day cancellations or the postmarks have been lost over time. Those other first-day covers for the known 285 offices are somewhat common, and are available from $5 to $10 each. Were you to find a cancellation from one of the lost post offices, though, the value would be significantly higher. There is one first-day cancellation that is also very valuable, although it was not made on the day of issue. The Navy postal service on the USS Noa, the first ship to reach Glenn after his return from space, received a number of the Mercury postage stamps on February 23rd and released first-day cachets of their own as the first mail sent from the ship after Glenn’s return.