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NASA's Starliner blasts off with no controversial souvenirs reported on board


NASA’s new Starliner space capsule blasted off aboard an Alabama built Atlas-V rocket today from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. The mission had been delayed by a ground computer issue, a valve problem on the rocket’s upper stage called the Centaur, and by a helium leak on the crew capsule itself. That appears to be behind NASA. Also, the astronauts don’t appear to be carrying souvenirs that could be considered controversial.

Astronauts typically carry items for themselves, or friends or family that can be claimed as having “flown in space.” Small flags and embroidered crew patches that symbolize the mission in orbit are reportedly common. One of the more unusual items was the original light saber weapon prop that was wielded by actor Mark Hamill during the “Star Wars” science fiction movie franchise. That trinket flew aboard space shuttle Discovery during its 2007 mission to install a barrel shaped compartment called “Harmony” on the International Space Station. If all goes well, the new Starliner is scheduled to dock with Harmony during its test flight. On the “souvenir front,” the two astronauts aboard the new capsule have some things packed on board.

Starliner crewmembers Sunita Williams (L) and Barry "Butch" Wilmore (R)

“You see these Navy Wings of Gold here?” asked Starliner Commander Barry “Butch” Wilmore during a pre-launch press conference. “You just got the astronaut symbol in the center. So, it makes it kind of special. I got my, when I first flew in space, I had real gold wings made into a ring. And I flew in from my wife. But I also had some man size rings made for my dad and my brother. And I'm gonna fly those for them.”

Wilmore’s souvenirs are not expected to generate heart burn for the space agency. That reportedly wasn’t the case during Apollo 15 in 1971. NASA changed the rules on flown space souvenirs after it said the astronauts, on the world’s fourth moon, took close to four hundred commemorative postal envelopes without telling the agency about it. The Apollo 15 crew included David Scott, Jim Irwin, and Al Worden. A 1972 NASA press release said…

“The 398 unauthorized covers are lightweight envelopes carrying as a cachet a replica of the official Apollo 15 patch overprinted with an Air Force wing and propeller emblem. They were part of a large order of cacheted covers paid for by a privately employed public relations man with a wide circle of friends among the NASA astronauts.

These 398 were properly packaged for flight and carried on board Apollo 15 by Scott in a pocket of his space suit; each carried a ten-cent "First Man on the Moon" stamp and had been canceled at the Kennedy Space Center Post Office early on July 26, 1971, the morning of the flight. These covers were not listed as being in Scott's preference kit; had they been so listed, they would probably have been routinely approved for inclusion in a preference kit as had the 243 authorized covers noted above.

APR news director Pat Duggins with Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden
APR news director Pat Duggins with Apollo 15 astronaut Al Worden

On the USS Okinawa, the Apollo 15 recovery ship, the astronauts purchased twin eight-cent stamps and affixed them to these covers. The covers were then canceled and date-stamped (Aug. 7, 1972) in the shipboard post office. The astronauts later autographed these covers while flying from Hawaii to Houston. On Aug. 31, 1971, 100 of these covers, already carrying the handwritten notation, "Landed at Hadley moon July 30, 1971. Dave Scott, Jim Irwin", had the additional legend - "This is to certify that this cover was onboard the (lunar module) Falcon at the Hadley Apennine, Moon, July 30-August 2, 1971" typed on their backs and signed by a notary public. It was these covers that later came on to the commercial philately market in Europe.”

NASA commemorative postal envelope from space shuttle mission STS-8
Pat Duggins
NASA commemorative postal envelope from space shuttle mission STS-8

NASA’s response to the flown Apollo 15 envelopes appeared less than favorable. However, with the rule change, the agency later flew 250,000 envelopes aboard a 1983 space shuttle Challenger mission to commemorate NASA’s 25th anniversary. Starliner pilot Sunita Williams has a few things to carry in orbit as part of the current allowable “crew preference kit” where astronauts can legally pack souvenirs for their mission.

“I have a couple of things for my family. But I have a couple of things from a school in Massachusetts that sort of bears my name and a bunch of, you know, five hundred little students there who are gonna be watching this launch. So I have a bunch of stuff that represents that. I'm also Navy, I went to the Naval Academy, so have a couple things that represents that and the class of (19)87. So we'll be ready. There'll be some surprises up there as well.

Starlliner’s successful blastoff was delayed by problems on the Alabama built Atlas-V and the crew capsule itself. Those issues were preceded by problems on unmanned flights, including software glitches that prevented the craft from docking with the International Space Station and concerns over the parachute harnesses that help cushion the vehicle’s landing on solid ground. Prior to Saturday's cancelled blastoff, one final glitch was a problem with the fans inside the astronauts spacesuits that circulate air. That was before a computer called a Ground Launch Sequencer halted the countdown at less than four minutes before blastoff.

Boeing's Starliner capsule is already years late in transporting astronauts to the International Space Station for NASA. SpaceX has been launching crews since 2020. NASA wants both companies for taxi service so they can back each other up. The 1986 space shuttle Challenger accident and the 2003 loss of Columbia, killing a total of fourteen astronauts, also grounded the shuttle program for months. NASA apparently wants a second way to carry astronauts to and from ISS in case of a future launch or landing disaster.


Pat Duggins is news director for Alabama Public Radio.
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