The great comeback

Late 1950s and early 1960s. Sputnik 1 and Comrade Gagarin's spacewalk take the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union to a new level. The western superpower understands that it is time to react strongly.

My main concern is what other countries of the world think of us. We can't believe we're superior to everyone else if we're not in the position to prove it. The Soviet Union, at the present time, is ahead of us of various lengths in the field of space exploration. We know very well what it means in terms of national security. This situation is intolerable, and I will do my best to make it change.

The thirty-fifth President of the United States had just finished speaking. All his staff had to do was work, because he would have supported the most daring project, the one that was most extraordinary and spectacular. And, on balance, this could only be one.


The words for the Congress

“.... I believe that this nation must strive to achieve the goal, before this decade ends, of landing a human being on the Moon and returning him/her safely to Earth. No space project from this period will be more impressive for mankind, nor will be more important for long-range space exploration; and no project will be as difficult and expensive to achieve. We propose to accelerate the development of the appropriate lunar vehicle. Alternatively, we propose to develop boosters with solid and liquid fuel, much larger than those currently in development, until it is certain which is the best. We offer additional funds for the development of other engines and for unmanned explorations, which are particularly important for a purpose that this nation will never neglect: the survival of the individual who will first make this daring flight. But in a sense, it won't be just one human being who will go to the Moon — if we make this judgement favourably, it will be an entire nation. Because each of us will have to work to bring man there ... "

John F. Kennedy in the United States Congress


Men and machines

The goal of the United States' third space programme, the Apollo Programme, was to land a human being on the Moon. The intention, which was later carried out, was to use a spacecraft - the Apollo - and a carrier rocket to send it into orbit, which was named Saturn.
The path to reach the result was not easy. A fire, which broke out during a simulation on the launch pad of Apollo 1, forced a long suspension. Three astronauts died: Gus Grissom, Edward White and Roger Chaffee. But the Americans did not lose faith and in October 1968, with the Apollo 7 mission, they tested the command module in the Earth orbit. In December of the same year, they sent Apollo 8 into the lunar orbit. The pace of activity was tight.
In March 1969, Apollo 10 performed the rehearsal function for the "première, which was to be staged the following July with Apollo 11.
The Moon could no longer wait.

Mare Tranquillitatis

The crew designated for Apollo 11 included Neil Armstrong, as Commander, Michael Collins, as pilot of the command module, and Buzz Aldrin, as pilot of the lunar module. 

On that day, it was 16th July 1969, the whole world was turned on these three men as they walked down the ramp to Cape Canaveral.

The Saturn rocket carried the spacecraft into orbit, and then pushed it towards the Moon. Michael Collins remained in the Command Module, while the colleagues Armstrong and Aldrin took their seats on the Lunar Module to begin the procedures that would have allowed the landing on the Moon.

On 20th July 1969, the Module with Armstrong and Aldrin on board hit the ground on the Moon. It still took a few hours for Armstrong to open the hatch, completing what would have become the mother of all missions.

Before then, no one had placed their foot on a celestial body other than planet Earth.

John F. Kennedy was unable to witness the realisation of his dream, but that goal, which he had indicated as the one and only useful achievement to bridge the gap between his country and the Soviet Union, had been successfully reached.

That's one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind
Neil Armstrong

The moon landing cancellation

On the Moon, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, will walk around collecting samples from the ground. 

But they left the Earth with a philatelic kit, provided with a first day cover and postmark "Moon Landing Jul 20 1969 USA".

“Three tests were needed on the flight schedule”, Aldrin will say, before obtaining the decisive cancellation with which he will create a unique copy. Without price. 

From a postal point of view, numerous sketches were prepared before preparing the stamp that would have celebrated the conquest of the Moon. The final image chosen for the cartoon depicted, in the foreground, one of the astronauts focused on testing the lunar soil.

And a single stamp, not perforated and printed in colour, was affixed to the envelope that was destined to receive the moon cancellation "Moon Landing Jul 20 1969 USA".

One hundred and fifty envelopes were made at the Houston base prior to the mission in an environment simulating the lunar one, 150 envelopes with proofs of postmarking the lunar cancellation on various postage, before putting the chosen one permanently in the packaging for stowage on Apollo 11.


At the end of the mission, these 150 envelopes received both the cancellation of Webster's cancellation machine, and the quarantine postmark, and each envelope was numbered and labelled "specimen", with the words "Trial piece". 

This cancellation was affixed only to have a "postal track" since the envelopes were not actually flown on the lunar soil. Despite this, the 150 envelopes of the postmarking test of the Moon Landing cancellation once again are the postal witness of the approach to our most desired goal: the conquest of the Moon.

Apollo 13

Apollo 12 and 13, the race continues

Apollo 12 was the sixth mission of the Programme and the second to land perfectly. It took off from Cape Canaveral on 14th November 1969. Shortly after launching, the Saturn carrier was hit twice by lightning and the on-board instruments stopped working for a short time. Fortunately, the damage was limited to some sensors, whose malfunction would not have affected the success of the mission. The Apollo 12 moon landing stood out for precision, bringing the module at a very short distance from the previously launched Surveyor 3 probe, with the task of collecting environmental data for future missions of the American space programme.

The Apollo 13 mission was not as much fortunate. The United States was counting on reaching the trio of moon landings, but after 55 hours from the launch of the mission, precisely at 321,860 kilometres from the Earth's crust, a short circuit caused the explosion of one of the four oxygen tanks of the Command and Service Module, causing serious damage. The sentence that became famous "Okay, Houston, we have a problem here", was pronounced precisely in this situation by the crew, which was communicating with the Mission Control. The astronauts returned safe and sound, not without difficulty, using the Aquarius Lunar Module that was designed for another purpose. During the re-entry phase, the radio blackout lasted longer than expected, on balance 86 seconds of silence, which was one of the longest blackouts of the Apollo programme. NASA considered the mission a "very successful failure". However, astronauts and ground technicians had shown that they knew how to deal with and manage a very critical situation. The incident also led to a complete overhaul of the Apollo spacecraft, in view of future missions.

Omens of the end of an era and a "hole in one" among the lunar bunkers

The beginning of 1970 opened with news from NASA, which had little of being positive. The names of the Apollo 15 crew had not yet been disclosed, when it was decided, considering the costs that were too high, to cancel the Apollo 20 mission, which was the last scheduled by the programme. But this wasn't enough. In the autumn of the same year, the financial cuts also mowed down the Apollo 15 and 19 missions. Missions from 16 to 18 remained, which were promptly renumbered to replace those cancelled. Apollo 15 returned to exist as a mission number but would have been of the "J" type, with advanced scientific activity.

The moment of Apollo 14 and the third moon landing arrived. It was 31st January 1971 when NASA performed the launch. The mission proved to be the most scientifically relevant. The load of moonstones transported to Earth revealed important information regarding the age of our satellite, while the instruments, which were installed in the moon landing area, provided additional data of high scientific value. Apart from some issues, which forced the astronauts to repeat the docking procedure between the Command Module and the Lunar Module six times, the rest of the mission did not encounter any particular difficulties. Alan Shepard, after having recovered from a moment of bewilderment due to the loss of orientation during an EVA (extra vehicular activity), even granted himself a shot of golf becoming the first, and only, golfer in space.  Apollo 14 returned unhindered on 9th February 1971.

In the summer of that same year, with the launch of Apollo 15 (renumbered), NASA reached a new milestone in lunar exploration. A more durable module and the use of the lunar rover - an absolute novelty - allowed the astronauts David Scott and James Irwin to make three outings, the second of which lasted as much as 7 hours and 12 minutes. They reached Mount Hadley, five kilometres from the moon landing point. During the third EVA (extra vehicular activity) the deceased astronauts were briefly commemorated by placing a metal statuette called Fallen Astronaut on the lunar ground. Apollo 15 was the fourth successful moon landing by the United States.

Apollo 15

The shadows of the Apollo 15 mission

Mysteries and scandals have not been lacking. The best-known case - because it became overwhelmingly public, after ending up in court - is that of the scandal of the envelopes flown on Apollo 15. In those years the objects flown in space radiated a certain charm and everyone wanted them so that, as the space programme continued, they were put on sale. This led the Apollo 15 crew to secretly carry to the Moon a number of envelopes that was considerably higher to that authorised. The result was 300 specimens incautiously offered for sale in Europe, immediately after the return of the mission. This regrettable "incident" - which ignited the debate in the Congress and outraged public opinion - cost the three astronauts their job and profoundly and irreversibly changed NASA's attitude towards "space mail". Subsequently, from Apollo 17 onwards, NASA banned the carrying of envelopes or stamps to the Moon (it was unable to block the Apollo 16 envelopes in time).

Apollo 16

The last postal load

On 16th April 1972, NASA launched Apollo 16, which successfully moon-landed on the lunar highlands for the first time. On board a modest postal load: Twenty-five space letters included in the personal luggage of Charles M. Duke, the pilot of the Lunar Module. Together with the departure stamp, dated 16th April 1972, and the return stamp of 27th April, which were affixed by the post office of the Ticonderoga ship, each space letter reported the handwritten certification by Charles Duke: "I certify that the envelopes for a total of 25 carried on the Apollo 16 flight landed on the Moon authorised for transport in my personal preference kit." It signed the last authorised transport, which later also became the rarest.

Apollo 17

Apollo 17, the end of the programme

Apollo 17, renumbered, was the eleventh human-manned mission of the Apollo programme. And it was also the last. The last chance to gain as much information as possible from our natural satellite, the last time a human foot touched the lunar ground. A set of last times, but also the only night launch of the Saturn V carrier. And also the only time a civilian was allowed to walk on the Moon. In fact, Harrison Schmitt was a scientist. He had previously been selected as a possible replacement for the pilot of the Lunar Module of the Apollo 15 crew. He was added to the Apollo 17 crew for the pressure from colleagues, who wanted, at least once, to have a scientist-astronaut on board the Apollo.

The mission ended perfectly bringing the American moon landing counter to six.

The challenge with the Soviet Union for supremacy in space exploration had been won and the interest of American politicians in space programmes was now inversely proportional to the costs to be incurred. Space station time was advancing, and with it, many changes.

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