In 2011 the USPS celebrated the first American in space, Alan Shepard, following on the heels of Russia's own philatelic memorial to the first man in space, Yuri Gagarin. It may be interesting to look at the other ways the U.S. has noted space flight.
Philately There at The Beginning of Space Conquest
Although earlier space related stamps including rocket and observatory stamps were issued by the U.S., the real philatelic excitement started with John Glenn, whose orbit around the earth in the Friendship 7 space capsule prompted a stamp that received a country wide-first day of issue back in 1962. This unusual nationwide release, timed to his successful flight by sending sheets of the stamps to post offices nationwide, sent a clear signal to philatelists and the world that the America was serious about space travel.
It was with the Project Mercury stamp and first day covers that many philatelists got their first glimmer of how stamps and covers could actually be more connected to one's real and current life than might be immediately apparent. Or maybe it was the second time: the Lindbergh airmail stamp issued shortly after his Atlantic crossing flight in 1927 was a precursor to the Glenn stamp. Today young stamp collectors' first exposure to space is likely through a stamp showing the Space Shuttle, of which the USPS has issued many.
Balloon Space Stamps
Interestingly, people don't think of balloons in terms of outer space, but balloons with pressurized gondolas have been traveling into the stratosphere since the 1930s. The stamp on the block of four ballooning stamps, released in 1983 to commemorate the bicentennial of manned flight, show one of these balloons, the Explorer.
Palestine Texas is the site of scientific balloon launches at the National Center for Atmospheric Research where unmanned balloons carry instruments aloft to measure radioactivity and other conditions in space. Many event covers, canceled on the day of scientific balloon launches and with a balloon cachet have been been produced. There hasn't been a stamp released for the Palestine launch site yet, but it would seem to be a commemorative-worthy subject.
Not All Space Stamps Show Space Vehicles or Astronauts
But we can't forget those stamps related to space, that would nicely fit into a space topical stamp collection, like the Palomar observatory stamp and the Seattle Space Needle stamp. A very early one, issued before the space program was truly underway, but another a fine reminder of the hopes of space exploration is the 1960 Echo satellite commemorative, picturing a huge Mylar balloon, its fabric metal a conductor for bouncing signals from space.
An image or mention of President Kennedy sometimes appears on 60's era space covers, in a nod to his championing U.S. conquest of space. Space stamps began during a new era for the United States -- The New Frontier, echoed years later in Star Trek with Captain Kirk's intro "Space...the final frontier."
US Conquest of Space on Stamps
Commemorative test flight covers give one a sense of the build up to the actual shuttle flights. One of those test pilots was Chuck (The Right Stuff) Yeager who flew the planes that tested vital components later used in the Space Shuttle and other astronautical vehicles. Space topics are very popular at stamp shows, and important test flight covers with cachets and postmarks and similar souvenir cards are readily available to the collector who wants to start a U.S. space topical.
One of the crowning items of the U.S. space program combined with philately is the USPS cover that was actually flown on the Challenger Space Shuttle back in 1983. With the $9.35 American Eagle Express Mail stamp and postal and NASA flight markings, the orbital covers make an impression far beyond that of an average first day cover. It certainly ranks as one of the highlights of any space stamp collection.