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The story behind the 2017 eclipse stamp

A 1st-of-its-kind stamp that changes when you touch it, commemorating the August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse. Fred Espenak – whose photos are on the new stamp – tells the story.

The Total Eclipse of the Sun, Forever® stamp transforms into an image of the moon from the heat of a finger. Fred Espenak shot the eclipse photo from Jalu, Libya in 2006, while the full moon image was made from his observatory in Portal, Arizona in 2010. The stamp commemorates the total solar eclipse of August 21, 2017 that crosses the U.S.

While I wouldn’t call myself a philatelist, I’ve always been interested in collecting eclipse stamps since my early days as an eclipse chaser. On an eclipse expedition to Mauritania, Africa in 1973, I eagerly sought out a set of three Mauritanian stamps to commemorate that eclipse.

Eclipse stamps have been wonderful momentos and reminders of eclipse trips over the years. Indonesia (1983), the Philippines (1988), Mexico (1991), and Aruba (1998) are a few of the countries that have commemorated solar eclipses with postage stamps.

When I launched the MrEclipse.com website in 1999, one of the first features was a series of pages devoted to eclipse stamps. Some of my fellow eclipse chasers have generously shared scans of stamps missing from my collection.

Postage stamp from Hungary uses Espenak’s eclipse bulletin map to commemorate the 1999 total solar eclipse through Europe. Image via Fred Espenak’s Portal to the Universe.

On some eclipse trips, I’ve been astonished to discover countries “borrowing” my maps from the NASA eclipse bulletins and featuring them on commemorative stamps. This first happened in Mongolia in 1997 and again in Hungary in 1999. While flattering, I was puzzled why the postal services in these countries never bothered to contact me about this. Of course, they had every right to use the maps since they were in the public domain, but still, it would have been nice to be notified.

But in Libya, I was startled to find one of my eclipse photos staring back at me in a set of Libyan stamps commemorating the total solar eclipse of 2006. I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised since I also saw vendors selling t-shirts featuring boot-legged copies of my eclipse photos presumably downloaded from MrEclipse.com.

Libya “borrowed” (without permission) one of Espenak’s eclipse photos (on the right) and reproduced it on a stamp (on the left) commemorating the total solar eclipse of March 29, 2006.

My wife Pat and I took it in good humor and even framed a set of the Libyan eclipse stamps for our home in Arizona along with a print of the “pinched” eclipse photo for comparison.

With the upcoming total solar eclipse through the USA in 2017, I had heard many eclipse chasers contend that such a momentous occasion deserves commemoration with a postage stamp. While I heartily agreed with them, I had no idea how to petition the U. S. Postal Service and convince them of the merit of this idea. Nor was I even inclined to do so since I was busy writing several books about the 2017 eclipse.

I was surprised when a representative of the U. S. Postal Service contacted me looking for photographs to consider for just such a commemorative stamp. I quickly submitted a selection of images and image sequences for consideration.

At first, I was simply a consultant on the project with no promise of whether any of my images would be used or even if a stamp would ever be produced. All the while I was cautioned that all stamp projects are strictly confidential and tentative until approved by the Postmaster General. Months went by, and I was asked to help with a press release and explanatory material that would accompany the introduction of the eclipse stamp.

This image of the solar corona is a High Dynamic Range composite made from 22 separate exposures. The original images were shot by Espenak in Jalu, Libya during the total solar eclipse of March 29, 2006. The USPS used this image to create the Total Eclipse of the Sun, Forever® stamp.

Eventually, the artist in charge of the stamp design was considering some of my 2006 eclipse photos. Yes! Maybe? Still no promises. And I was still required to keep the project to myself.

Months passed and I was asked to verify the accuracy of an eclipse path map containing eclipse times for various cities. Finally, I was asked for a high resolution file of one of my 2006 eclipse photos. The Postal Service was exploring several different images for possible use on the stamp. They also wanted a corresponding full moon image to place over the eclipse which would become visible through the use of thermochromic ink. Well this was something I’d never heard of before! I searched though my collection of astrophotos for an appropriate full moon image as requested.

Just after the New Year, the news came that my images would definitely appear on the new stamp. I was delighted but still forbidden to share this information. I had to wait until the USPS issued a press release officially announcing the stamp. January, February and March rolled by as I got busy giving lectures and interviews about the Great American Eclipse.

On April 24, I reviewed the final version of the press release for the stamp. More corrections and tweaks were made. The official announcement finally happened on April 27, saying:

The Postal Service will soon release a first-of-its-kind stamp that changes when you touch it. The Total Eclipse of the Sun, Forever® stamp, which commemorates the August 21 eclipse, transforms into an image of the Moon from the heat of a finger.

The First-Day-of-Issue ceremony will take place on the summer solstice, June 20, 1:30 p.m. MT at the Art Museum of the University of Wyoming (UW) in Laramie. Pat and I are both planning to attend.

I’m honored to have my images on this unique stamp. But more importantly, the stamp will spread the news about America’s Great Eclipse to many more people than I could ever reach. A total eclipse of the sun is simply the most beautiful, stunning and awe-inspiring astronomical event you can see with the unaided eye. But you’ve got to be in the 70-mile-wide path of totality that runs across the nation from Oregon to South Carolina.

So where will you be on August 21, 2017?

Bottom line: Fred Espenak tells the story behind the new stamp that’ll commemorate the August 21, 2017 total solar eclipse.

Read more: Total eclipse of sun: August 21, 2017

Read more: Best places to watch 2017 eclipse

Read more: Press release from USPS about the solar eclipse stamp

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Fred Espenak

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