Recovery Ship Covers from the Manned Mercury Program - Part I

(by Dr Ross Smith including corrections)
(Soon to udergo a major update)

Introduction1

At 9:34am EST on 5th May 1961 a Redstone rocket roared into space. Aboard was the first American and the second man in space, Alan Shepard (discounting earlier flights of the X-15 that achieved Astronaut status by flying above 80 kilometres)2. Previously, on 12th April, the USSRís Yurly Gagarin stunned the west by becoming the first man in space aboard Vostok 1. Shepardís flight (Mercury 3) was a brief sub-orbital flight of only 15 minutes and 22 seconds and recovery was achieved after an ocean splashdown, unlike Gagarinís recovery which occurred on solid ground.

The Beginning - Mercury Redstone 3

The ocean recovery meant that a recovery fleet of eight destroyers and one Atlantic Missile Range radar tracking ship, led by the carrier Lake Champlain, was deployed to recover the capsule. In a recovery that only took 11 minutes, Shepard was recovered in the Atlantic by the primary helicopter from Marine Air Force Group 26 and ferried to the Main Recovery Ship, the Lake Champlain. In addition, there were other minor ships involved such as an amphibious US Army lark on stand by at Cape Canaveral ready to retrieve the Mercury capsule should an abort using the launch escape system occur. These smaller ships are mostly undocumented and thus unknown. A probable exception is the CGC Eastward which appears to have been a Weather ship for the recovery.

A New Cover Type for Collectors

Shepardís flight introduced an entirely new area to the then small number of collectors of space covers; the recovery ship cover. Covers are catalogued from the Main Recovery Ship USS Lake Champlain and six of the destroyers; the USS Abbot, USS Decatur, USS Perry, USS Rooks, USS Sullivans and the USS Wadleigh. I also have a cover from the CGC Eastwind which may have been a Weather ship for the recovery.

Tom Steiner reported in the May, 1990 issue of ĎAstrophileí that there were only 44 philatelic covers postmarked aboard the USS Lake Champlain as well as an unknown number of non-philatelic covers. Only a few of these non-philatelic covers have been reported including printed envelopes used by crew members to obtain cachet and splashdown day cancels. Tom also reports that covers can be found with three different types of cancel; a machine cancel and two "killer bar" hand cancels. An easy way to tell the difference between the two hand cancels is that one uses "U.S.S." (Type I) and the other "USS" (without the periods - Type II) in the shipís name. The rarest of all the Lake Champlain covers is the Captainís cover which in addition to a cachet has the Captainís signature.

Cost

All except the CGC Eastwind are extremely rare with the Lake Champlain cover selling at Superiorís mid year auction for $2645. The destroyer covers have not appeared at auction (at least the ones Iíve seen) in recent years.

Thus, the only cover available to most collectors is the poorly documented CGC Eastwind cover which was valued at $25 in the recent Seymour Rodman mail auction.

A Repeat Effort - Mercury Redstone 4

In what was essentially a repeat of the previous flight, Virgil Grissom blasted into space at 7:20am on 21st July, 1961. Again a small task force lead by the carrier USS Randolph was waiting in the Atlantic to recovery Grissom. However, recovery did not go as smoothly as with Shepard.

As the recovery helicopters approach the floating Mercury capsule, the hatch cover suddenly blew away and salt water started splashing into the capsule as it bobbed in the ocean. Liberty Bell 7 was sinking with Grissom on board! Luckily Grissom had previously unbuckled himself and was able to scramble out of the capsule and swim clear, buoyed by the air in his pressure suit. As the lead helicopter attempted to recover the capsule, Grissom swam in to help. It was then that the second problem made itís presence felt. Not only was air escaping his pressure suit through the neck dam, but Grissom had forgot to secure his suit inlet valve. He was fast losing buoyancy and swimming was becoming difficult. In addition a second helicopter had arrived and the rotor wash from the two was making swimming even more difficult. He was within a few minutes of drowning! Luckily, at that moment the second helicopter tossed him a "horse-collar" lifeline and hauled him aboard. Grissom was saved. Not so lucky was the Liberty Bell which, filled with water weighed over 5000lbs , a thousand pounds beyond the helicopterís lifting capacity. It was lost in a depth of 2800 fathoms. Grissom was then ferried to the USS Randolph, the Main Recovery Ship.

Covers Issued

Again covers were issued for the recovery with two types of postmarks known for the USS Randolph, a machine "killer-bar" cancel (Type I) with the shipís name at the top and a more scarce hand cancel (Type II) with the shipís name at the bottom.

In addition to the USS Randolph, covers from five other ships (the USS Cony, USS Conway, USS Lowry, USS Stormes and USS Wallen) are catalogued. However the Spring 1997 Superior Space Memorabilia Auction stated that the USS Lowry was the only Recovery ship other than the USS Randolph to have a post office on board during recovery operations. Therefore, any other Recovery Ship covers must have been postmarked on return to port.

Cost

The USS Randolph cover is expensive with an example selling at auction for $1322 in 1996. The only example of covers from the other ships which I have seen in recent years was a USS Lowry cover signed by the shipís captain and thus itís price is not indicative.

In Orbit at Last - Mercury Atlas 6

While the USSR had achieved orbit with their very first manned mission (Gagarin in Vostok 1) in 1961, the US had still not achieved manned orbit at the beginning of 1962, with their first two missions being short sub-orbital flights. As well the USSR had successfully completed a second manned mission, Gherman Titov in Vostok 2, which orbited the Earth an impressive 17 times before reentry. This changed on 20 February, 1962 at 9:47am when, after several postponements and a series of launch day delays, John Glenn blasted into orbit in Friendship 7 (Mercury 6). This flight used a more powerful booster rocket in the General Dynamicsí Atlas D to achieve orbit.

This mission again had itís drama. A significant problem developed with the automatic stabilisation and control system forcing Glenn to switch to manual control. This forced Glenn to become "a full-time pilot", causing him to omit many of his observational assignments. However, a much more serious problem then occurred. Mission Control started receiving an instrument signal indicating that the spacecraft heatshield and the compressed landing bag were no longer in position. If real, the heatshield was being held to the capsule only by the straps on the retropackage. This was potentially disastrous as the buffeting during reentry could easily cause the heatshield to break loose, leaving Friendship 7 to burn up in the atmosphere. A decision was made to keep the retropackage attached during reentry (it is normally jettisoned at the beginning of reentry to, amongst other reasons, ensure that any unburnt solid propellant left in the package does not ignite during reentry). It was felt that, while the package would burn up during reentry, it would last long enough to hold the heatshield to the Mercury capsule until aerodynamic pressures were strong enough to keep the shield in place.

With NASA anxiously awaiting the result, Glenn fired the retrorockets a little more than four hours and 33 minutes after launch, while nearing the California coast. After a successful reentry, the manoeuvring fuel supply ran out causing oscillations of the capsule to occur, threatening the successful deployment of the parachute system. Just as Glenn was about to manually deploy it (before the capsule tipped was over by the oscillations) the parachute deployed automatically (although at 28,000ft rather than then nominal 21,000ft). The final descent went smoothly and Glenn splashdown into the Atlantic about 40 miles short of the predicted area.

The ship leading the Atlantic Recovery Force was the USS Randolph. However, with Glenn splashing down 40 miles short of the recovery area, the first ship to reach him the destroyer USS Noa, 17 minutes after the capsule entered the water. After a brief recovery period aboard the Noa, Glenn was transferred to the carrier USS Randolph. Thus both ships can be considered as Main (or Primary) Recovery Ships for the mission.

Covers Issued

There were several types of covers issued by both ships, including covers which were illegally backdated. The story starts with the US Post Officeís decision to issue 4c Project Mercury stamps on February 20 and only after the completion of Glennís flight. Unfortunately this meant that no stamps were aboard the recovery ships on that day. The USS Noa and the USS Randolph didnít receive a supply of these stamps until three days later, 23 February. Covers with Project Mercury stamps postmarked on 20 February 1962 were backdated by the USS Noa. The destroyerís mail clerk stated that there were approximately 300 of these incorrectly dated covers with Project Mercury stamps, along with 1500 covers with Project Mercury stamps dated correctly 23 February 1962 and 24 with red ink postmarks! A more complete version of this story was printed in the January 1988 issue of ĎAstrophileí. In addition, an unknown number of covers with non Project Mercury stamps were correctly dated 20 February 1962. It appears these were postmarked in the morning (postmarks after 12 noon contain a PM under the 1962), as were all of the previously mentioned covers (presumably for the launch). However, one or more have been found with a PM postmark. These are therefore suspect of having been backdated as well.

The USS Randolph issued covers with both AM (launch) and PM (recovery) on 20 February postmarks (with non Project Mercury stamps) as well as a Captainís cover which used a label cachet printed aboard the ship. Also, some covers have been seen with Project Mercury stamps and have therefore been illegally backdated.

As MA-6 was a full orbital mission, the main Recovery Force was much larger than for previous missions, consisting of 24 ships stationed in both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, including the USS Randolph and a tracking ship in the Indian Ocean. All of these ships issued covers. They were the USS Randolph, USS Noa, USS Alstede, USS Antietam, USS Bailey, USS Barry, USS Bearss, USS Blandy, USS Brownson, USS Chukawan, USS Constellation, USS Cone, USS Enterprise, USS Forrestal, USS Glennon, USS Goodrich, USS Norfolk, USS Purvis, USS Sarsfield, USS Sperry, USS Stormes, USS Stribling, USS Turner and the USS Witek.

Cost

Prices brought at auction in recent years for USS Randolph covers are in the range $55-$85 for backdated covers, with non-backdated covers going for up to four times this and a captainís cover five to six times the backdated cover. USS Noa covers have brought $125-130 (ignoring one high value) for backdated covers and 75-100 (again ignoring one anomalous result) for covers postmarked in port. The only value for a non backdated cover seems a little high at $550.

Most of the other covers are rare and have not come up for sale in recent years. Two exceptions are the USS Enterprise and the USS Alstede which have sold for as little as $11 and $15 respectively.

To Be Continued

This is the end of Part I of the story. Part II will detail the final three Mercury missions; Mercury 7 (Carpenter), Mercury 8 (Schirra) and Mercury 9 (Cooper). A much larger range of covers at affordable prices are available for these missions. Many of these have been offered for sale in recent years, including, not only ships of the Primary Recovery Force but also a number of secondary tracking ships, mostly from the US Missile Tracking and Recovery Fleet, with the designation USNS instead of USS.
Mercury Recovery Ship Covers

1 - all dates are in the format day/month/year, times are USA time and all prices in US$

2Corrections

The comment in the first paragraph that "Aboard was the first American and the second man in space, Alan Shepard (discounting earlier flights of the X-15 that achieved astronaut status by flying above 80 kilometres)." is a misnomer. By the time of Shepard's April 12th launch, the highest the X-15 had flown was169,000 feet (by Joe Walker on 30 March 1961). It didn't surpass 200,000 feet until 11 October 1961 when Bob White flew it to 217,000 feet. What is refered to as the first astronaut wings flight of the X-15 wasn't until 17 July 1962 when White flew it to 314,750 feet. Astronaut wings were awarded to pilots who flew the X-15 beyond 250,000 feet. Eight X-15 pilot earned astronaut wings. This is all out of Jay Miller's book "The X-Planes".

Figures

1 - The rarest of all the PRS Covers - MR-3 Lake Champlain Captainís Cover
2 - The only affordable MR-3 Cover - USCG Cutter Eastwind
3 - An unusual USS Noa hand painted cover - backdated
4 - The more common USS Noa cover - backdated
5 - A USS Alstede cover from MA-6
6 - A USS Enterprise cover from MA-6

References

· This New Ocean - A History of Project Mercury, NASA Historical Series, US Government Printing Office, USA, 1966
· Primary Recovery Ship Cover Handbook, Ray E. Cartier, Published by the Space Study Unit, USA, 1993
· Cosmos 6th and 7th Editions, Published by Editions Lollini, France, 1985 & 1994
· Superior Auctions, over several years, Superior Stamp & Coin, USA
· Astro Postal Auctions, over several years, Seymour Rodman, USA
· The Beck Handbook of Printed Cachets, Les Winick in cooperation with STSU and USCS, 1995
· Astrophile, publication of the STSU , various issues as noted
· Private cover collect


 





This page is maintained by Dr R J Smith (rjsmith@magna.com.au) .
Last modified on 18 February 2007.