The Mail That Was Smuggled to The Moon
- 1 month ago
A lot of objects flew to the moon and back aboard NASA’s Saturn rocket. During the Apollo missions and those before that, astronauts were allowed to take some personal items with them as mementos. Before the flight, the astronaut had to declare the list of items they intend to carry as souvenirs and have it validated by NASA. As long as the request was not unreasonable and the items didn’t exceed a certain weight and size, they were usually allowed to be flown.
In between fourteen flights, Apollo’s crew carried all sorts of stuff—Snoopy pins, a piece of the plane the Wright Brothers flew, a lightsaber, a handful of dirt from the Yankee Stadium, and seeds. Astronaut John Young, who passed away in January this year, triggered a small scandal when he smuggled a corned beef sandwich onto the Gemini 3 flight in 1965, and then ate it. NASA was not pleased, and some members of the Congress made a fuss about how Young’s stunt disrupted a scheduled test of space food during the flight. Six years later an even bigger scandal rocked NASA that not only tarnished the image of the astronaut corps, it actually cost three astronauts their job.
Official portrait of the Apollo 15 crew. From left to right, David R. Scott, commander; Alfred M. Worden, command module pilot; and James B. Irwin, lunar module pilot.
From the very beginning of the Apollo missions, space memorabilia became one of the most sought after items among collectors. A common practice was to sign specially-designed envelopes, known as covers, and cancel them on the day of launch. These are known as “first day covers” and they fetched a lot of money at auctions. And if a first day cover flew to the moon and back, it made the covers even more valuable. Today, a cover that flew on the Apollo 11 mission can fetch as much as $50,000 at an auction. A lot of money indeed. So when Horst Eiermann, a German-born naturalized American living in Stuttgart, approached the crew of the Apollo 15 with a plan, the three astronauts—David Scott, Alfred Worden and James Irwin—got suckered into the deal.
You see, astronauts were paid very poorly. While they did make a generous $17,000 per year—equivalent to about $100,000 today—but considering the astronauts' substantial education and experience, and the tremendous risk they took in their mission, the pay was notable low. There was no special compensation or hazard pay for flying the mission—the Apollo 11 astronaut Buzz Aldrin received $33 as travel expenses for flying to the moon and back—and no insurance company was willing to come forward and wager a little money on the astronauts’ life and health. So astronauts resorted to selling autograph and space memorabilia to fund for their families’ future and their children’s education should something untoward happen.
The NASA-sanctioned postal kit that was flown to the moon.
And here is David Scott cancelling mail on the lunar surface using the said postal kit.
Horst Eiermann convinced the three astronauts to bring aboard an extra 100 stamped covers, in addition to some 250 that were to be officially flown to the moon. For their troubles, each astronaut was offered $7,000, and an additional 100 covers to each astronaut to do as they pleased. The astronauts were promised that the stamps would not be sold until after the Apollo Program had ended.
In July 26, 1971, three astronauts and a total of 632 covers blasted off from the Kennedy Space Center. During missions, personal items were supposed to stay at the Command Module, but the astronauts violated the rule and brought the contraband to the lunar lander Falcon.
Upon return, the 100 covers were delivered to Eiermann, who was acting as the middle man between the astronauts and the German stamp dealer Hermann Sieger, who conceived the idea. Sieger failed to honor his part of the deal and sold the covers immediately profiting $150,000 from it. Soon word got out about the Sieger sale, and forced NASA to take some of the most severe disciplinary actions ever meted out to astronauts.
One of the illegally flown postal cover.
Colonel Worden was originally asked to clear out his office at NASA, but after some pleading he was reassigned to a non-flight role. Colonel James Irwin left NASA and founded an evangelical group, where he spent the next 20 years as a “Goodwill Ambassador for the Prince of Peace”, stating that “Jesus walking on the earth is more important than man walking on the moon”. Colonel Scott who had aspired to fly in the Apollo-Soyuz joint mission with the Soviet, was dropped from the role of a pilot and made a technical adviser instead. Later, he became the director of NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center and retired from NASA in 1977. Needless to say, none of them ever flew again.