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Apollo 15 postage stamp incident (wikipedia.org)
133 points by danielsiders on April 30, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 49 comments

> some said astronauts should not be allowed to reap personal profits from NASA missions.

That's an interesting ethical question. At what point is it ok for someone who got paid by the government to do a job ok to make extra money because of that fact.

These days most Presidents get to write books about their time in the White House and make money. Buzz Aldrin still goes to cons and signs autographs for money.

So where does the line belong?

I don't think it was an issue of misuse of tax payer dollars or anything like that.

The point of allowing astronauts to bring personal items was to help keep their mental health stable and morale high over the course of an 8+ day journey in a very confined space under extreme stress. Having crew members thinking about how their side hustle was going to pan out when they got home would be a distraction and not in line with the goal of the personal item allocation.

Additionally, if it was left unchecked then future astronauts would have had to choose between bringing a picture of their loved ones or passing up on a financial bonus which would have led to a bad situation.

I can see why NASA cracked down on it pretty aggressively.

You've reached your one-post-per-year quota already and I think it's been well spent. This seems to be a perfect rationale when you put it in these terms

> You've reached your one-post-per-year quota already

I've tried to make sense out of your comment but have failed. What do you exactly mean by this sentence?

Suspect he was referring to the frequency of the parent poster's comments: https://news.ycombinator.com/threads?id=chazzyluc

Ah yes, that makes sense now. Thank you.

This would be more like the President renting out a room in the White House. I think the line is actually pretty clear; if you're using state resources to produce something of value to sell for private profit, you're on the wrong side of it.

While 400 stamps don't weigh a lot, they'd still cost more than $1 each to launch by my back of the envelope calculations. You're effectively footing NASA with a $500 bill to pocket $21k.

But they are allowed to bring personal items on board. The error here was clerical. In fact some of the covers were listed under the personal items section.

So was that wrong? They opted to take those instead of other personal items.

I believe the profit motive made it wrong, yes. It creates a fundamental conflict of interest in the allocation of taxpayer resources.

This might not have been a severe case, but NASA was absolutely right to come down on it hard.

Or, it demonstrates a lack of foresight by NASA to take advantage of an opportunity to sell a bunch of stamps over the following decades at wildly inflated prices.

There must be at least a handful of items that don't weight a lot per 1000 units that could have gone to the moon and back. I'm thinking pretty much any paper document or certificate, cash notes.

That's how Hearst funded the first round-the-world flight, on the Grad Zeppelin. Novelty stamps!

But mixed motivations can be confusing and demotivating.

I don't know common sense? Honor? Respect perhaps?

Or how about the President having guests stay in personal hotel chains?

Oh wait...

The crack down will probably come, just delayed by a few years.

you optimist

Not sure if you’re hinting at this but President Clinton was actually caught renting out a room in the White House:


It doesn't feel like the same situation. A better analogy would be running personal projects from your corporate servers, as you are using your professionally acquired access to resources you do not own for personal gain. There is little grey area there - unless you own the company, it isn't appropriate.

Not really - each astronaut was specifically given a weight allocation (in grams) for personal effects, to be chosen at their discretion, for non mission related minor cargo.

It's more like your work giving you written permission for a free 1RU of space and 2 amps of power and a DIA feed described for a personal test/development/project server, you installing a personally owned 1RU server in it and doing something useful with it, and then your work trying to claim the revenue from it.

It's more like your work giving you written permission for a free 1RU of space and 2 amps of power and a DIA feed described for a personal test/development/project server, and you turning around and starting a paid hosting service on it

Except some were unlisted. Then it's like installing 2RU when they only wanted you to install 1RU.

Then you increased their fuel/energy/etc costs and increased the lives of others as there are now unvetted things in space/your rack.

I doubt that they didn't weigh the personal effects pouch accurate to within 1 gram beforehand, so whatever they brought, it was within the specified weight allowance.

In this case yes, but what if it did matter? What if something happened and they became loose or had a chemical that set off some sensor? There is probably more than just weight checks. Safety of ship, crew safety, imagery they wouldn't want on any footage or photographs, etc.

Some were declared; why weren't these? It is suspicious behavior. What else could have been brought on? What failures of process and policy allowed this to happen?

Astronauts can make money from their adventures the same way presidents do:

1. After the job is over and they retire 2. By making personal appearances or writing a book

Presidents generally don't take mementos on official state trips so they can sell them on eBay when they get back.

Don't they sometimes sign legislature with multiple pens for similar purpose?

It’s the difference between making money doing the mission itself, as in doing something during the mission you wouldn’t otherwise do in order to profit from it, as against making money from having done the mission.

In this case it seems like it was just about approval. Those items were not approved to fly on that rocket and that's a pretty big breach of procedure.

well, these guys tool a big personal risk - the vehicle might have blown up; so that I wouldn't judge them too much as a matter of principle.

Fascinating. I'd never heard this.

Also of interest are the "insurance covers" signed by Apollo 11 astronauts as a form of life insurance and mentioned in a linked Wikipedia article.

It wasn't just Apollo 11, it was Apollo 11-16. What blew me away about this was the fact that this was, in essence, DIY life-insurance because they couldn't get insurance. I never gave it much though; I just assumed that the U.S. government would have agreed "okay guys, if you get killed going to the moon, we'll make sure your families are taken care of". Guess not? From the Wikipedia page on Apollo Insurance Covers "The ability of astronauts to obtain much life insurance was limited, so they signed hundreds of postal covers before they left, on the presumption that they would become highly valuable in the event of their death." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_insurance_covers

I have an official flight cover from the challenger space shuttle.

These covers didn't make it to the moon, but they flew on the shuttle and were officially sanctioned.

They are a plentiful and inexpensive piece of history - you can get them on ebay for about $20 (search for "STS-8 cover" or similar)

why has the title been changed from "covers" (which is what they were) to "stamp" which is a less specific form of what they were? Why are we not just using the article title?

Because most people have no idea what covers are, and unless you collect postage stamps the difference means nothing to you. If you'd asked me before I met a friend who collects, I would have assumed that using a stamp would render it worthless.

The article's talk page actually has a similar discussion over whether to call them stamps or covers in the title, so although they come down on your side its hardly a given.

I still don't understand what a cover is. Is it the cancellation stamp?

A cover is essentially an envelope (it got it's name because it covers the contents), usually stamped and those stamps cancelled.

Here's some examples of fancy covers:


According to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Event_cover they are "decorated, stamped and canceled commemorative envelopes"

Essentially they are envelopes with stamps and a marking over the stamps that prevents the envelope and stamps to be used.


I think most people would not understand the technical term “cover” while “stamp” clues them in that is is likely somehow postal related.

"postal covers" (the article title) would seem to handle that.

in my 40+ years of living in english speaking countries and sending thousand of pieces of postal mail over that time, i've never heard the phrase 'postal cover'. 'postal' is the only clue that indicates it's ... to do with 'postal' stuff.

I agree. This is a technical discussion forum and we should use the correct terms.

TIL what a "postal cover" was, and how "cancelled envelopes" work.

Which made me realize how little I've ever used the postal services for actual letters in my life. My generation (late 80s / early 90s) must be one of the last to interact with the postal system when personally sending letters to people, rather than just parcels.



The early astronauts made all kinds of extra on the side. Sponsored cars, magazine exclusives and various similar shenanigans. I didn't understand then (which I'm old enought to remember), and I do not understand now why the stamp incident was singled out and hammered so severely.

Davis Scott had handled himself superbly during his two previous flights, and Apollo 15 was in all relevant respects a huge success, most visibly so for premiering the lunar rover and bringing back the genesis rock.

There's a difference between running a side game on your own time and smuggling schlocky trinkets on a mission of national significance under a international spotlight. I suppose you can spin it as a triumph of capitalism, but most people would consider it an embarrassment.

It's only an embarrassment if you have a deep seated anti-commercial bias. Sure, your adjectives are quite invocative but let's contrast your prose with reality:

> smuggling

Taking something personal in the space assigned for personal use is not smuggling.

> schlocky trinkets

Envelopes from space are pretty neat and evidently highly valued by the people that ended up buying them. Those people now have something that is nearly unique and very special to them. Have you personally ever created or done something as meaningful for other people?

> national significance

No doubt. But how come a government bureaucracy like NASA can't make cool memorabilia like that to give to the fans that payed for all of it but can only watch?

> international spotlight

Few people cared about Apollo 15. It's actually already legendary how hard the public interest dropped off after the first few landings.

> triumph of capitalism

It is a triumph, absolutely. Hundreds of people got something really meaningful for them that they would not have gotten otherwise. The astronauts got a well earned pay off. Humanity got artifacts that will be preserved down the ages. Nobody was hurt or exploited. Win Win Win all around

It’s nothing to do with commercial bias. The personal effects allowance was assigned in order to aid astronaut morale. If they’re sacrificing allowance for personal items commercially that creates a perverse and distracting situation. Also personal effects are supposed to go through a approval process, which at least some of these covers bypassed. Do you really want astronauts making trade offs between genuinely personal items and effectively commercial cargo?

"The personal effects allowance was assigned in order to aid astronaut morale."

This strikes me as a weird reason to object: surely, Getting significant financial gain could help aid morale.

I'm not in favour of astronauts using their launches to establish a for-profit souvenir business. But I'm not objecting to that on the grounds of their morale.

They needed to be recorded and approved as safe for the cabin. These were smuggled. It was a breach, and was punished.

If they'd applied, who knows, they might have been approved. Afterward, everybody talks about how awful it was. But that was just blather.

Carrying commercially valuable goods can also be a source of pressure and anxiety. It's a messy situation to get into.

They recently tried to auction one at 22.000€, but apparently it was too much. Still for sale, though.


From the title, I assume that when NASA realised they couldn't meet the Apollo 15 launch schedule they simply farmed the problem off to the Postal Service, by covering the rocket with stamps?

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