November 3, 2011
— China opened a new post office on Thursday (Nov. 3) with a street address that is 213 miles (343 km) above the Earth.
Coinciding with the country achieving its first ever docking in space between the unmanned Shenzhou 8 spacecraft and Tiangong-1 space lab module, the "China Post Space Office" opened for business both on the ground in Beijing Aerospace City and, at least virtually, on board the newly established orbital complex.
Located on the ground near China's mission control, the Beijing Aerospace Command and Control Center (BACC), the new space post office even has its own zip code that extends into orbit: 901001.
Like any postal facility, the office will process letters and, in this case, e-mails, making it possible for the public to write Chinese astronauts, or "taikonauts," on the ground and in space. The space post office will offer domestic and international delivery as well as philatelic products, with more services expected to be introduced as China's aerospace industry eventually expands.
Yang Liwei, who in 2003 became China's first taikonaut in space, will serve as the post office's honorary chief.
China's first taikonaut in space Yang Liwei, right, at the opening of the "space" post office at Beijing Aerospace City. (Xinhua)
A partnership between the China Post Group Corporation and the China Manned Space Engineering (CMSE) Office, the post office will also sell philatelic collectibles depicting China's major events in space. Among the first souvenirs offered are cancelled envelopes, or "covers," celebrating the Shenzhou 8 and Tiangong-1 docking complete with a commemorative postmark.
China's postal service has issued other commemoratives for its country's previous space accomplishment but not through a dedicated "space" post office.
Shenzhou 8, which was launched on Oct. 31, caught up with and docked at the Tiangong-1 space lab module on Nov. 2. The two unpiloted spacecraft will remain linked for 12 days before the Shenzhou detaches, backs away, and then approaches again. After the second demonstration of docking techniques, Shenzhou 8 will return to Earth.
In addition to demonstrating docking, Shenzhou 8 is also flying space life science experiments for both China and Germany.
The first docking established China as the third nation to achieve such a space feat, after the United States and Russia. The orbital hookup marked a step forward toward China's plans to deploy a manned space station by 2020.
Russia has operated a makeshift post office on its space stations since the 1970s and continues to operate such a service on the International Space Station. The Russian space office consists primarily of a postmark device that is only used in space. Cosmonauts use the ink stamp to mark letters and postcards as having flown in orbit, but also use it to mark other space souvenirs including crew notebooks, equipment and patches.