November 23, 2010
— Alan Shepard will be depicted on a 2011 U.S. postage stamp wearing the silver spacesuit in which he made history as the first American astronaut to fly into space.
The stamp's design, which was quietly released last week by the U.S. Postal Service (USPS), shows Shepard from his shoulders up centered between images of his rocket lifting off and his capsule above the Earth.
Opposite the astronaut's portrait on an adjoining stamp, an artist's rendering shows NASA's MESSENGER spacecraft orbiting the planet Mercury.
The pair — or "se-tenant" — of space-themed stamps was revealed in the USPS's annual report for 2010, which was posted to the postal service's website Nov. 15. The two stamps are displayed with other commemoratives planned for next year as a lead in to the report's financial section.
As first announced by the USPS in August, the stamps — titled "Alan Shepard: First American in Space" and "First Spacecraft to Orbit Mercury" — were designed by science fiction artist Donato Giancola, who worked with former Air & Space magazine art director Phil Jordan.
Timed to coincide with MESSENGER becoming the first spacecraft to enter orbit about Mercury on March 18, 2011 and the 50th anniversary of Shepard's Mercury-Redstone 3 flight on May 5, the stamps are the first space-themed releases by the USPS in more than a decade.
In addition, the Shepard stamp will mark the first time the U.S. has honored an astronaut with his own postage. Long standing rules require individuals to be deceased at least five years before they can be considered (Shepard died of leukemia in 1998) and events of "historical significance" are eligible only on anniversaries in multiples of 50 years.
While honoring Shepard as the "First American in Space" — as the stamp's inscription describes — the design omits reference to Shepard also having been the fifth out of only 12 men to the walk on the moon.
The MESSENGER stamp is the third to depict a mission to the closest planet to the Sun, though the first dedicated specifically to the MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging, or MESSENGER, probe. The previous two — issued in 1975 and 1991 — honored the first spacecraft to fly by Mercury, Mariner 10.
According to Linn's Stamp News, a weekly newspaper for stamp collectors, the stamps' artwork as published in the USPS annual report is preliminary and final designs are to be released late next month.
Possible changes however, are expected to center mostly on the denominations. The postal service plans to change all of the first-class stamps to be "forever" stamps, which can be used to mail a one-ounce letter regardless of when the stamps were purchased or used, and no matter what the postage rates may be in the future.