Recovery Ship Covers from the Manned Mercury Program - Part II

(by Dr Ross Smith including corrections)


Part I discussed the first three manned Mercury missions and outlined the recovery effort and especially the ships involved in the recovery. This was an introduction to the covers issued by those ships as well as prices recently paid for such covers.

Part II finishes the story by detailing the final three Mercury missions and the various Recovery Ship covers issued.

Late Changes - Mercury Atlas 7
Donald Slayton and Walter Schirra were designated as pilot and backup for Mercury 7. Then, at the last moment, after "human interest" stories had already been published about Slayton, NASA suddenly announced on 15 March, 1962 that Slayton, because of an "erratic heart rate" had been replaced as pilot by Carpenter. This was despite the concept of "backup pilot" which would indicate that Schirra would have taken over as primary pilot. The choice of Carpenter was made on the recommendation of Williams, the operations team leader, who felt that Carpenter was most ready for the upcoming mission.

After the success of the scientific astronomical observations on Glennís mission, Mercury 7 was designed to yield as much scientific, as opposed to engineering, information as possible. The launch was scheduled for the second week in April. However, it was delayed until May by the installation of new components as well as an Atlantic Fleet tactical exercise involving the recovery ships and aircraft.

Thus, at 7:45am on 24 May, 1962 after a near perfect countdown, Aurora 7 blasted into orbit with an estimated TV audience of 40 million. Up until it was time for reentry, the flight went extremely well except for a slight over expenditure of fuel and a problem with food. Carpenter was carrying a new type of food which, instead of being of the squeeze tube variety as used on Glennís flight, was processed into pieces three quarters of an inch square. Unfortunately, not only did Carpenter find these difficult to handle and place in his month while wearing his helmet, but they tended to crumb producing weightless crumbs floating around the cabin.

On his third orbit, the NASA tracking station at Hawaii instructed Carpenter to start preparations for reentry. Carpenter began aligning the capsule and shifted to automatic mode. Then trouble struck! The automatic stabilisation system would not hold the 34 degree pitch and zero degree yaw attitude required for reentry. After 10 frantic minutes Carpenter regained control manually and fired the retro rockets. Due to this and a number of other factors, Carpenter landing 175 miles from the intended impact point. The destroyer, USS Farragut was the first naval vessel to sight the incoming Mercury capsule. Carpenter scrambled out of Aurora 7 into the sea and started inflating his life raft. However, like Glenn, he had forgotten to deploy his neck dam and lock the inlet hose. Carpenter suddenly felt some water in his boots! He quickly crawled into the lift raft to await rescue. Thirty-six minutes later two rescue aircraft appeared overhead. It took another twenty minutes for several SC-54 aircraft to arrive, one dropping two frogmen. After three hours of waiting (and a reputed rivalry between the Air Force and the Navy which may have forced Carpenter to wait an hour and twenty minutes longer than necessary and led to a series of questions in Congress), Carpenter was rescued by a HSS-2 helicopter and arrived aboard the Carrier Intrepid some four hours and fifteen minutes after his return to Earth. Aurora 7 was picked up by the destroyer Pierce. Thus the covers from both ships are important. As well as these two ships, there were large recovery flotillas in both the Atlantic and the Pacific as well as a number of other ships around the world.

Covers Issued
As usual the prime recovery ship, the USS Intrepid postmarked a number of different types of covers. It should be noted that only hand cancels were used aboard the Intrepid. By now, recovery ship cover collecting had become established and a number of dealers, as well as private individuals, produced covers to be postmarked aboard the Intrepid. Again, a Captainís cover with a shipís cachet, printed in two colours, black and dark blue, was issued. It contains the Captainís corner card and signature in the top left corner. Note that covers with the same cachet but without the Captainís corner card and signature also exist.

Covers were also postmarked on the USS John R Pierce, again with a mixture of dealer producer covers and individual collector produced covers. Many of the later were plain covers without a cachet. Cacheted covers are known from Harry Gordon, George Goldey (of Goldcraft Cachets) and Morris W Beck.

The cover from Morris Beck was to prove to be of enormous significance as it was the first of many. Beck started producing covers in 1942 as a junior in high school! In 1943 he purchased his own hand printing press and used it to print cachets for ship launching and commissionings. After a stint in the Navy, Beck produced cachets for various topics and events until 1962. On 24 February, 1962 Beck returned to producing Naval cachets with a cachet to commemorate the launch of the USS Thomas Jefferson. This was the first of 1,000 Naval covers he produced up to 11 October, 1975 when a final cachet was produced for the Keel Laying of the Carl Vinson. All these covers include a progressive three-digit number, preceded by a "MWB" at first, and later in the series by a "B". In addition, a small number of covers were printed without a Beck number. Some were printed by Beck for members of the crew, while others were printed without authorisation by various collectors or shipís personnel. These should not be confused with the official Naval cachets which used Beck artwork and started with the Gemini missions.

Beckís first foray into recover ship covers was for Mercury 7. However, the Beck printed cachet produced for the Pierce was only issued to crew members and didnít have a Beck number.

The following ships are known to have issued covers: USS Alstede, USS Antietam, USS Barton, USS Fred T Berry, USS Constellation, USS Dewey, USS Donner, USS Elokomin, USS English, USS Enterprise, USS Hank, USS Hunt, USS Massey, USS Randolph, USS Remey, USS Robinson, USS Shenandoah, USS Soley, USS Spiegel Grove and the USS Wren.

Other ships that were present include: the USS Farragut.

USS Intrepid covers have recently sold for $50-$100. Covers with Captainís cachet but without signature have be estimated at $75-$100. On the other hand, Captainís covers with signature have sold for $150-$170 in recent years and a copy was recently estimated at $250-$350. No recent examples of USS Pierce have been cited but would be expected to be similar to USS Intrepid covers.

USS Alstede and USS Enterprise covers are readily available and are the cheapest of the Mercury ship covers at $5-$10. The other recovery ship covers (Barton, Berry, Dewey, Hank, Hunt, Massey, Moale, Roberson and Wren) are more expensive. With cachet, they have been sold at prices between $25 and $40. Without cachet, they are worth less with some sales in the range $15-$25.

Troubled Preparations - Mercury Atlas 8

Mercury 8 was to be a test of the ability of an enhanced Mercury spacecraft to accomplish a day long flight (which was intermediate between the previous short flights and a planned 18 orbit, 3 day flight). Originally a seven orbit flight was planned. However, the seventh orbit would have required additional recovery forces and therefore the mission was reduced to 6 days. Even then, preparations did not go well. A hoped for August launch was put back by at least a month due to a series of minor problems with the Mercury capsule modifications. Next problems developed with the lithium hydroxide cylinders (used to purify the air for the Mercury capsule, mainly by removing carbon dioxide and water). Eventually someone decided to weight the capsules, which proved to be half a pound short! If not detected this could have be fatal, at a minimum the mission would have been shortened. An analysis of Carpenterís fuel thirsty flight, which occurred as work on Mercury 8 continued, led to further modifications and a further delay. Another problem developed when it was decided to retain the periscope that was used for alignment observations to test it against observations through the capsule window. Unfortunately a UV spectrograph was designed to use the space released by removing the periscope. It had to be abandoned. Problems with the periscope also led to it being replaced by one "cannibalised" from another Mercury capsule! It was now late in August with 18 September the planned launch date.

While all this was happening, the booster for Mercury 8 had its share of troubles. After failing an initial composite test, it was delivered almost two weeks late. Then recent tubopump failures in the Atlas program led to new tests, adding a further week to the slippage. Even before these tests could be carried out, a fuel leak in a seam weld was found. The launch day was again put back, this time to 3 October.

Due to the significantly different orbital traces for Mercury 8, recovery shifted from the Atlantic (used for all previous missions) to the Pacific. In addition, the tracking network was augmented by five airborne relay stations, in the form of USAF C-130s, based at Patrick AFB (Air Force Base), Florida; Ramey AFB, Puerto Rico; and Midway Island. The actual recovery force included 19 ships in the Atlantic and nine in the Pacific. In addition there were other ships used for tracking, weather prediction etc, again including a tracking ship in the Indian ocean as well as the tracking ships, the USNS Huntsville and USNS Watertown. One hundred and thirty-four aircraft covered the primary and secondary landing sites.

Finally all the problems were overcome and after a near perfect countdown, Mercury 8 (Sigma 7) lifted off with astronaut Schirra aboard at 7:15am on 3 October, 1962. As on previous missions Schirra was unable to see flares launched from the ground during an observational experiment carried out from Woomera, Australia. He was, however, able to see the outline of Brisbane, Australia. Later he was also able to made out cities in South Africa and the Philippines plus a river in South America. The rest of the mission went extremely well, except for the usual minor problems such as an initial problem with his suit temperature being too high.

On the sixth orbit, after an extremely successful mission, Schirra fired his retrorockets 8 hours and 52 minutes into the mission. After a perfect reentry, Mercury 8 splashed down in the Pacific only 4.5 miles downrange from the planned landing point. Helicopters from the main recovery ship, the carrier USS Kearsarge, were soon on the scene and dropped three frogman to help Schirra. Schirra and the frogmen were taken to the carrier Kearsarge in a small motor whaleboat.

Tracking ships included the Coastal Sentry stationed near Japan and the telemetry command ship, the Rose Knot, positioned near Pitcairn Island in the Pacific.

Covers Issued
The following ships2 are known to have issued covers:

Main Recovery Ship: USS Kearsarge
Pacific Recovery Force: USS Epperson, USS O.Bannon, USS Renshaw,
Prime Atlantic Ship: USS Lake Champlain
Other Recovery Force Ships: USS Alstede, USS Antietam, USS Barry, USS Bon Homme Richard, USS Bordelon, USS Charles F. Adams, USS Constellation, USS Coontz, USS Decatur, USS Dupont, USS Dyess, USS Enterprise, USS Epperson, USS Franklin D. Roosevelt, USS Furse, USS Haynsworth, USS Henley, USS John Paul Jones, USS Kaskaskia, USS Keit, USS Kitty Hawk, USS Lexington, USS Long Beach, USS Midway, USS Norris, USS Oriskany, USS Philip, USS Radford, USS Randolph, USS Ranger, USS Robertson, USS Shangrila, USS Charles E. Sperry, USS Ticonderoga, USS Vesole, USS Walker, USS Wasp, USS Warrington, USS Yorktown
Pacific Tracking Ships: USNS Huntsville
Other Tracking Ships: USNS Range Tracker, USNS Richfield, USNS Sunnyvale

Other Ships (no covers have been sighted): USNS Coastal Sentry, USNS Rose Knot

The Captainís cover (USS Kearsarge) on official shipís stationary with the shipís magenta rubber stamp cachet was issued without a postage stamp as the cover was for meant official business. Such covers usually do not have the Captainís signature. However, ordinary covers with the shipís magenta rubber stamp cachet and the Captainís signature exist. Two types of machine cancellations are known on USS Kearsarge covers; Type I with the day and month above the time, and Type II with the day and month below the time. Hand cancellations were also used on a small number of covers and are thus rare. Finally, USS Kearsarge covers with the shipís magenta rubber stamp cachet and the shipís corner stamp also exist.

This is the first mission for which Morris Beck designed covers that were available to the general public. He produced covers for the USS John Paul Jones (MWB 77), USS Norris (MWB 78) and USS Charles E. Sperry (MWB 79). No Beck covers were produced for the main recovery ship, USS Kearsarge.

Covers from other ships exist with various cachets as well as with no cachet. Also, covers from some of these recovery ships exist signed by their Captains (eg the USS Berry, USS Long Beach, USS Franklin D. Roosevelt and USS Ticonderoga). Covers from the various tracking ships bare the usual black United States Navy Missile Tracking and Recovery cachet.

USS Kearsarge covers have sold in recent years for $60-$100. Similar covers with the Captainís signature have gone for $80-$100. No Captainís covers have been sighted.

Several Beck covers for the USS John Paul Jones (the very first Beck cover issued to the public) sold for $35 in 1996. At the same auction, Beck covers for the USS Norris and USS Charles E Sperry sold for between $20 and $25.

Other MA-8 recovery ship covers with cachets have be estimated at and sold for $27-$35. Without cachet such covers have sold for $15-$20. The various tracking ships (such as USNS Huntsville, USNS Range Tracker, USS Richfield and USNS Sunnyvale) and less well known and prices vary over a larger range ($15-$35).

The End of the Beginning - Mercury Atlas 9

Initially a 18 orbit full day mission was planned. On 9 November, 1962 this was increased to a 22 orbit, 24 hour mission. The flight required vastly expanded support, as Mercury 9 was to criss-cross virtually all of the Earthís surface between latitudes 33 degrees north and south of the equator. Thus 28 ships and 171 aircraft were assigned to the mission. This was exactly the same number of ships as for Mercury 8, but the number of aircraft had been significantly increased. In addition a number of tracking ships were stationed at various points around the globe, including two extra ones; the Twins Falls positioned between Florida and Bermuda and the Range Tracker stationed near the Gilbert Islands in the Pacific.. The tracking ships from Mercury 8 included the Coastal Sentry stationed near Japan and the telemetry command ship, the Rose Knot, positioned near Pitcairn Island in the Pacific.

Preparations for Mercury 9 started badly with two recent failures in Atlas-F launchings by the Air Force threatening to delay the flight. In addition a number of voices were being raised against the cost of the manned space program. It was against this atmosphere that Cooper finally decided to name this capsule Faith 7. Despite this inauspicious beginning, preparations generally when smoothly with only the usual minor problems.

At 6:36am on 14 May, 1963 Astronaut Gordon Cooper was sealed inside Faith 7 and awaited the completion of the countdown. Unfortunately, radar data from Bermuda, which was vital to the go/no go decision became intermittent. The launch was postponed. Next morning the countdown was resumed and proceeded smoothly. At 8:04 and thirteen seconds on the morning of 15 May, 1963 the final Mercury mission blasted into space. All went well and Cooper achieved a near perfect orbit.

As had occurred with Carpenterís suit, Cooper experienced problems with his suit temperature. However these were soon forgotten as he, like Carpenter, observed the lights of Perth, Australia. By the beginning of the third orbit the mission was going extremely smoothly with no major problems. On the third orbit Cooper released a six-inch diameter sphere, equipped with polar xenon strobe lights. Despite being unable to see the satellite for the rest of the orbit, he eventually spotted it during the fourth orbit. Expect for the second failure of a 30-inch diameter Mylar sphere to deploy (it also failed during the Mercury 7 flight), the mission went faultlessly until the 19th orbit, when Cooper noticed the first potentially serious systems anomaly of the mission. The light was indicating that Faith 7 was decelerating! While Cooper suspected this was false, he could not be sure.

The situation deteriorated on the next orbit (the 20th) when Cooper lost all attitude readings. Then during the 21st orbit, a short circuit occurred leaving the automatic stabilisation and control system without electric power! The minor glitch had become a serious problem. Cooper also noticed that carbon dioxide levels were rising in both his suit and the cabin. Mission Control franticly analysed the situation and upload a new checklist for a manual reentry. On the 22nd orbit, Cooper came into contact with John Glenn who helped Cooper complete his checklist. Then Glenn gave a 10 second countdown and Cooper fired his retrorockets.

The reentry went exactly as planned and Cooper splashed down in the Pacific, just four miles ahead of the main recovery ship, the carrier USS Kearsarge. Helicopters were quickly on site, dropping frogmen to help with the recovery. Cooper was taken aboard the USS Kearsarge after a very successful final Mercury mission.

Covers Issued

The following ships are known to have issued covers:

Main Recovery Ship: USS Kearsarge
Prime Atlantic Ship: USS Wasp
Pacific Recovery Force: USS John A. Bole, USS De Haven, USS Duncan, USS Epperson, USS Flectcher, USS Frank Knox, USS Lofberg, USS Mansfield
Atlantic Recovery Force3 : USS Beatty, USS Compton, USS Corry, USS Davis, USS Myles C. Fox, USS Gainard, USS Harwood, USS Hyman, USS McCaffery, USS Nantahala, USS Purdy, USS Taussig, USS John W. Thomason, USS Charles R. Ware
Tracking Ships: USNS Huntsville, USNS Longview, USNS Range Recoverer, USNS Range Tracker, USNS Richfield, USNS Sunnyvale, USNS Watertown

As with the MA-8 cover, the Captainís cover (USS Kearsarge) for MA-9 was issued on official shipís stationary with the shipís magenta rubber stamp cachet and did not have a postage stamp. Such covers usually do not have the Captainís signature. However, ordinary covers with the shipís magenta rubber stamp cachet and the Captainís signature exist. Hand cancellations were also used on a small number of covers and are scarce. Covers with various other cachets also exist. A black RSC is also mentioned in the price list insert to Ray Cartierís Primary Recovery Ship Cover Handbook without an illustration.

For the first time, Morris Beck issued a cover for the Main Recovery Ship. Two covers with different Beck numbers were cancelled aboard the USS Kearsarge, B232 and B317. The later was issued for the USS Fletcher but some were cancelled by the USS Kearsarge as well as at Cape Canaveral. Note that previous Beck covers were numbered MWB and a number whereas from these covers onwards a B and a number were used. Also, Beck issued covers for many naval events other than Recovery Ships and thus Recovery Ship Cover numbers are not consecutive between missions.

As well as the above two covers, Beck issued covers for the USS John A Bole (B318), USS Mansfield (B319), USS Frank Knox (B320), USS Duncan (B321), USS De Haven (B322), USS Taussig (B324), USS Lofberg (B325), USS Epperson (B326) and the USS John W. Thomson (B327).

Covers for these ships plus the others mentioned above were also issued with various cachets and without cachet. Covers from most of the tracking ships bear the usual black United States Navy Missile Tracking and Recovery cachet. The exception is the USNS Range Recoverer which has a simple text cachet (unknown whether USNS Range Recoverer covers also exist with the black MSTS cachet).


USS Kearsarge covers have sold in recent years for around $100 for the hand cancel and around $65 for the machine cancel. Beck covers sell for approximately $100.

Covers were issued by all other ships in the recovery force, with and without cachets. In addition various cachets are known. One common cachet is a Mercury capsule marked MA-9 RECOVERY FORCE, with both black and maroon cachets known. Another cachet that appears on the covers from several ships is a more complex pictorial PROJECT MERCURY Cooper ORBITS THE EARTH cachet. Non-pictorial cachets are also common. Note that the USS Epperson cover is available with a special Shipís/MA9 cachet. Such covers are all priced similarly at $15-$20 with a Navy cachet. Beck covers sell for $5-$8 more. Covers without cachet are worth considerably less.

The various tracking ships (such as USNS Huntsville, USNS Longview, USNS Range Recoverer, USNS Range Tracker, USS Richfield, USNS Sunnyvale and USNS Watertown) and less well known and prices vary over the range $12-$28.

Could anyone with information on other ships which issued covers for any of the Mercury missions please contact Ross Smith by mail at:

PO Box 550
South Hurstville
NSW 2221

or by email at

1 - all dates are in the format day/month/year, times are USA time and all prices in US$

2 - As mentioned in the text, NASA quotes the recovery forces as consisting of 9 ships in the Pacific and 19 in the Atlantic. The USS Kearsarge, USS Epperson, USS OíBannon and the USS Renshaw are known to be part of the Pacific fleet. That leaves five other ships. A bigger problem is the total number of ships, which numbers 45 against the NASA total of 28. It appears that there were a large number of ships (possibly including one or two entire carrier groups) outside the two main recovery forces.

3 - Three other ships were part of the Atlantic Recovery Force. It is unknown if they issued covers.

· This New Ocean - A History of Project Mercury, NASA Historical Series, US Government Printing Office, USA, 1966
· Primary Recovery Ship Cover Handbook, Ray E. Cartier, Published by the Space Study Unit, USA, 1993
· Cosmos 6th and 7th Editions, Published by Editions Lollini, France, 1985 & 1994
· Superior Auctions, over several years, Superior Stamp & Coin, USA
· Astro Postal Auctions, over several years, Seymour Rodman, USA
· The Beck Handbook of Printed Cachets, Les Winick in cooperation with STSU and USCS, 1995
· Astrophile, publication of the STSU , various issues as noted
· Private cover collection of Dr Ross J. Smith


This page is maintained by Dr R J Smith ( .
Last modified on 24 August, 1998.