Sputnik and the space race on stamps

The Russian Sputnik programme triggered off the space race, changed the way we communicate and gave philatelists an array of cosmic issues to collect, as our 'longer reads' guide to this fascinating theme reveals

In October 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik-1 from the fifth Tyuratam range in Kahzakhstan (now the Baikonur Cosmodrome). The first artificial satellite was little bigger than a basketball, weighed 183 lbs and attained a speed of 18,000 mph, taking 98 minutes to orbit the Earth.

It carried two transmitters, sending signals on 20 and 40Mhz. The signals continued for 22 days before the batteries ran out, but Sputnik continued to orbit the Earth. Having travelled 37 million miles it burned up on re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere.

The signals picked up by every ham radio around the world sent shivers down the spines of White House and Pentagon staff.

Sputnik ratcheted up the Cold War and triggered off the space race between the USSR and the USA. It would lead to sweeping changes in the political, economic and military spheres and accelerate unprecedented advances in science and technology.

Collecting sputnik stamps

It would also trigger off a whole new theme in stamp collecting, so great that it's even distinguished by its own name – astrophilately.

Nowadays postal administrations have the ability to issue stamps in the twinkling of an eye, but back in 1957 stamp production worked at a more leisurely pace. It was not until 4 November that the USSR released its first Sputnik stamp. The 40 kopek stamp showing the little satellite orbiting the Earth was original released in a grey-blue shade but was then re-issued on 28 December in a bright blue colour.

In fact, Russia issued two stamps with a space theme only three days after the actual launch date.
The first marked the birth centenary of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935), the pioneer of rocket science, and showed his portrait.
The second showed a rocket and formed part of a set marking International Geophysical Year.

In 1952 the International Council of Scientific Unions announced that IGY would take place between 1 July 1957 and 31 December 1958, a period when the cycles of solar activity would be at their peak. In October 1954 the ICSU resolved that the launch of artificial satellites or space probes should be included in the IGY programme.

In July 1955 President Eisenhower announced plans to launch a satellite. In September it was decided that the Vanguard satellite, then being developed at the Naval Research Laboratory, would be America’s contribution. It weighed only three pounds; when it was eventually launched Nikita Khruschev dismissed America’s pioneering satellite as no more than a grapefruit.

The launch of Sputnik 1 caught the Americans on the back foot, but Wernher von Braun and his Redstone team were immediately ordered to start work on a larger satellite, launched in January 1958 as Explorer 1.

The launch of Sputnik 2

While this project was under way the Russians astounded the world by launching Sputnik 2 on November 3. Not only did this have a much heavier payload but it actually carried a living creature, the dog Laika.

Sputnik 3 was a much larger and more ambitious satellite, launched on May 15, 1958. It had a payload of 1,327kg and contained an impressive array of scientific instruments – effectively the world’s first space laboratory. Significantly, it was launched into space from a Soviet R-7 intercontinental ballistic missile. It continued in orbit for 692 days, a remarkable achievement.

The Sputnik launches galvanised the USA and on July 1, 1958 the National Aeronautics and Space Administration was created by Act of Congress.  

In the Communist bloc, the launch of the first Sputnik was hailed as a triumph and the various Soviet satellites lost no time in rushing out their own commemorative stamps.

First off the mark was Romania, on 6 November 1957, with a se-tenant pair showing Sputnik 1. The stamps were separated by a descriptive label and were issued in turquoise or ultramarine. They were re-issued in July 1958 with an overprint to mark the Brussels World’s Fair.

On 10 December 1957 Romania released two stamps showing the dog Laika and Sputnik 2 in the background. This was subsequently reproduced on a Hungarian stamp showing some of the early stamps in the space theme.

The launch of Sputnik 3 was duly noted by Romania on September 20, 1958 with a stamp which was inscribed ‘SPUTNIK 3, 1327kg’.

Worldwide celebrations
On 3 December 1957 the German Democratic Republic issued a stamp showing Sputnik 1. This was closely followed by Czechoslovakia whose IGY set of three featured Sputnik 2 on the 75h value. Sputnik 3 appeared on a 30h stamp of 1961, in a set of six chronicling Soviet space achievements up to that time.

North Korea featured Sputnik 1 on a stamp of March 1958, while Poland marked the end of IGY with a 2.50z showing Sputnik and its orbital track. The same country issued a stamp in November 1959 showing Sputnik 3 over the globe.

The People’s Republic of China produced a set of three on October 30, 1958 showing all three Sputniks in orbit. Bulgaria followed a month later with a stamp showing Sputnik 3.

Cuba (which had the honour of pioneering special stamps for rocket mail as long ago as 1939) issued a Sputnik stamp in October 1960, followed in 1964 by a stamp portraying Lenin with Sputnik in the background.

Inevitably, the most comprehensive coverage of the Sputnik missions came from the Soviet Union itself. The launch of Sputnik 2 was celebrated on December 30, 1957 with a set of four showing the allegorical statue ‘To the Stars’ by Yevgeny Buchetich.

A stamp marking the International Disarmament Conference in Stockholm showed an atom bomb crossed out, with the three Sputniks orbiting the Earth. In July a stamp with se-tenant label marked Sputnik 3.

Several later stamps featured the Sputniks, although they were overshadowed by the numerous issues recording subsequent Russian space achievements. 

When the Russian currency was revalued in January 1961, requiring a new definitive series, a Sputnik was depicted on the 3 kopek value, both as an adhesive stamp and an impressed stamp on postal stationery.