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.
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.
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.
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.
Fred Espenak is a scientist emeritus at Goddard Space Flight Center. For decades, he has been NASA's expert on eclipses, and some of you may know him as Mr. Eclipse. Fred maintains NASA's official eclipse web site (eclipse.gsfc.nasa.gov) as well as his personal web site on eclipse photography (mreclipse.com). Now retired and living in rural Arizona, Fred spends most clear nights losing sleep and photographing the stars (astropixels.com). His latest website is devoted to helping you enjoy eclipses (www.eclipsewise.com). He is an EarthSky content partner.