Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Canada's Space Story on its Stamps and Currency

Canadian stamp from 1966 honouring Alouette II

This is an updated version of an article I wrote in 2003 on Canada's stamps and currency related to space exploration.

In addition to my interest in space exploration, I also collect stamps. So it is no surprise that my collection includes stamps about space exploration. And Canadian stamps on this topic are of course of special interest.

As a semi-official form of recognition, postage stamps also reflect the interests of the government and society in general. In this case, Canadian stamps reflect the moderate degree of interest Canadians have in their own space program.

This moderate level of interest is shown in how Canada marked its early space achievements. When Canada launched its first satellite into orbit in 1962, the there was no stamp issued to mark the event. Instead, the first stamp related to Canada's space program honoured Canada's second satellite.

A five-cent commemorative stamp featuring Alouette II was issued on January 5, 1966, a few weeks after the satellite's launch. Yet no Canadian stamp was ever issued for Alouette I. In the absence of another explanation for ignoring this "first," it appears that politics was involved.

Back in the 1960s, Canada had a conservative stamp issuing policy, and the post office was a government department headed by a politician who sat in cabinet.

In 1962, when the first Alouette was launched, John Diefenbaker's Progressive Conservative government was on its last legs and was replaced a few months later by a new Liberal government under Lester Pearson. The Conservatives never took the opportunity to honour the first Alouette with a stamp, and the Liberals waited to put out a stamp until a satellite had been launched on their own watch.

Both Alouettes conducted research on Earth's ionosphere, a layer of the atmosphere that reflects radio waves. In the days before communications satellites, the ionosphere and its changes had major impacts on long-range communications.

Prior to the Alouette stamp, only four Canadian stamps contained any reference to outer space. A 1953 wildlife set included a polar bear on a two-cent stamp with a background suggestive of the Aurora Borealis, and a 15-cent definitive issued in 1954, showed a Gannet flying in front of the Big Dipper and Polaris, the North Star. Canada's two 1964 Christmas stamps depicted the Star of Bethlehem.

Three other stamps from this period also relate to space. Canada joined the U.S. and other countries in issuing a special stamp for the International Geophysical Year of 1957-1958, an event closely tied to the birth of the space age. Canada's stamp shows a microscope and a globe. Another 1957 commemorative shows explorer David Thompson using a sextant.

And on February 23, 1959, a five-cent commemorative honoured 50 years of flight in Canada with a design showing the Silver Dart, the first aircraft to fly in Canada, and three jet aircraft that bear a striking resemblance to the CF-105 Avro Arrow. This stamp design is rich with irony because the Arrow had been cancelled just three days before the stamp came out. Only five of the Arrows ever flew, and 32 engineers who lost their jobs when the Arrow was cancelled moved south and found work with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, where they played important roles in the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo and Space Shuttle programs.

After the Alouette stamp, Canadian space stamps were few and far between for nearly two decades. An Olympic ceremonies set issued at the time of the 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics shows a communications satellite on the eight-cent value between two Olympic torchbearers. A communications satellite appeared 10 years later in the Expo 86 set marking the World's Fair in Vancouver.

1986 Canadarm Stamp

In 1985, Canada honoured the flight of its first astronaut, Marc Garneau, with a 32-cent Canadians in space stamp. In 1986, a set of Canadian technical achievement stamps included one featuring the Canadarm or shuttle Remote Manipulator System that has been an integral part of the space shuttle. Another stamp in the set depicts the g-suit, which is widely used by pilots and astronauts to protect against blackout.

Canada issued two 42-cent space achievement stamps that are probably its best known space stamps. One stamp showed the Anik E2 communications satellite, and another stamp bore a hologram showing the Space Shuttle above Canada. The hologram stamp, Canada's first, is popular with collectors because of its many varieties.

Later in the decade, a technology set issued in 1996 included an aerospace technology stamp, but the design emphasized the "aero" part of the term. The design of the 1995 stamp commemorating the 125th birthday of the Province of Manitoba includes a Black Brant sounding rocket that is produced in Winnipeg by Bristol Aerospace.

Five of the 68 stamps in Canada Post's Millennium Collection set in 2000 touch on space themes. The Canadian space program stamp depicts the Alouette, ISIS, Hermes, Anik and RADARSAT satellites, along with the Canadian remote manipulator system installed on the International Space Station. The Space Shuttle appears on a stamp featuring the Imax film technology developed in Canada, and a communications satellite is shown on a stamp featuring Canada's largest telecommunications company, Bell Canada Enterprises. Canadian inventor George Klein, whose inventions include the STEM (storable tubular extendible member) antenna used on Canadian and American spacecraft, appeared on his own stamp. And Abraham Gesner, the inventor of kerosene, also has a stamp in this set. The invention of kerosene, which was used in the Saturn V and many other rockets, was also honoured with a Canadian 37-cent stamp in 1988.

Later in 2000, Canada Post issued a set of four Stampin' the Future stamps, which included two with a space theme. The stamps were designed by children and are similar to an American set issued at the same time to coincide with the World Stamp Expo 2000.

In 2002, a set of stamps featuring tourist destinations included a $1.25 stamp showing the Aurora Borealis, which draws tourists to Canada's north. A 48-cent stamp honouring St. Mary's University in Nova Scotia shows a student at a telescope.

Canada Post put out its largest issue of space stamps ever on October 1, 2003, when it honoured the eight Canadian astronauts who have flown in space with a sheet of eight self-adhesive stamps that include holographic stamping and micro-embossing. The 48-cent stamps represent missions flown on NASA space shuttles by Canadian astronauts Marc Garneau, Roberta Bondar, Steve MacLean, Chris Hadfield, Robert Thirsk, Bjarni Tryggvason, Dave Williams and Julie Payette. The bottom of the sheet depicts one of the high points of Canada's space program, the "handshake" between the Canadian-built robot arm on the shuttle Endeavour and the Canadarm2 aboard the International Space Station.

Roberta Bondar Stamp from 2003
Like the hockey all-star sets around that time, the astronaut set broke Canada's traditional prohibition on stamps for living persons outside of the Royal family. That rule was been officially lifted after that time, and since then many other living Canadians have appeared on our stamps.

Canada's role in creating a satellite-borne system to assist in search and rescue operations was acknowledged in a set of four search-and-rescue stamps issued on June 13, 2005. The four stamps depict search-and-rescue operations, along with a Russian Nadezdha or COSPAS satellite, and an American NOAA Polar Orbiting Environmental Satellite. Both satellites also appear on the margins of the issue's miniature sheet. In 1979, the U.S., the Soviet Union, Canada and France set up the COSPAS-SARSAT satellite rescue system in a rare example of Cold War cooperation. Canadian-built search-and-rescue receivers were put on U.S., Russian and French satellites, and the system began operation in 1982.

On June 30, 2006, Canada Post marked the 100th anniversary of the Atlas of Canada with a 51-cent stamp. The stamp has no space theme, but the margin of the stamp's pane shows a satellite orbiting the Earth to obtain data from Earth orbit for today's Atlas of Canada. The "satellite" closely resembles the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecraft, which were launched in the 1970s and explored Jupiter, Saturn and the outer Solar System.

Although Canada has a strong tradition of excellence in astronomy, it was only in 2009 that Canada issued its first stamps dedicated to the science. On April 2, Canada Post put on sale two 54-cent stamps and a souvenir sheet in honour of the International Year of Astronomy. The year was celebrated to mark 400 years since telescopes were first pointed at the skies.

One stamp shows the Horsehead Nebula in Orion and the Dominion Astrophysical Observatory near Victoria, B.C., which was the world's largest telescope for a few months after it was completed in 1918. The other stamp shows the Eagle Nebula in Serpens and the Canada-France-Hawaii Telescope on the summit of Mauna Kea on the island of Hawaii, which began operations in 1979. The margin of the souvenir sheet and a booklet containing the stamps also contain photos of other astronomical objects.

In recent years, Canada Post has issued definitive stamps featuring Canada’s maple leaf flag. A set of five “permanent” domestic rate stamps issued in January 2011 included a design showing the Canada wordmark, which incorporates the flag, on the Canadarm in space. The five stamps were issued in booklets of ten self-adhesive stamps and in souvenir sheet form.

In 2011, 2012 and 2013, Canada Post issued stamps featuring the twelve signs of the zodiac. The four constellations depicted each year included traditional drawings of the constellation sign overlaying a star map of the constellation. The dozen stamps, all with a "permanent" domestic rate value, were issued in booklet and souvenir sheet forms.

Other Countries

Canadian space achievements have also made their way onto stamps from other countries.
In 1968, Barbados issued a set honouring World Meteorological Day that included a stamp depicting a large cannon built by a Canadian team headed by Dr. Gerald Bull.

The High Altitude Research Program (HARP) launched projectiles into high trajectories, but funds were cut off before Bull could attempt a satellite launch using the cannon. While some research was conducted at a site on the U.S.-Canada border in Vermont and Quebec, a cannon was built in Barbados with help from the U.S. military.

In 1987, the Soviet Union marked the success of the COSPAS-SARSAT search-and-rescue program with a souvenir sheet.

From the U.S., the 1981 space achievements set of 1981, and the $3.00 Challenger stamp of 1995 show the Canadarm on the shuttle, and the Canadarm appears on shuttle stamps from other countries, notably Germany's 1975 shuttle definitive. Alouette was featured in a 1966 Polish space set and a 2012 souvenir sheet from Mozambique. Marc Garneau, Canada's first astronaut, appeared on the Gambia's sheet of stamps in 1994 marking the 25th anniversary of Apollo 11.


Because all Canadian satellites and astronauts have been launched outside Canada, commemorative envelopes or covers marking these launches are available with cancellations from these foreign launch sites. An Alouette I launch cover from its Vandenberg Air Force Base launch site in California is illustrated.

Cover cancelled at Alouette I launch site on its launch date

Commemorative "tracking" covers from Canadian locations exist for early U.S. human space flights, especially Apollo flights. These covers are of limited value because no U.S. human spacecraft flew over Canadian territory until the Skylab program in 1973.

More information on space stamps is available from the website of the Space Topic Study Unit in the U.S. and the Astro Space Stamp Society in the U.K.

The best online source of information on Canadian stamps is the Canadian Postal Archives.

Coins and Currency

A Canadian spacecraft made its first appearance on our paper currency on a $100 bill that the Bank of Canada circulated from 2004 to 2011. The back of the bill showed RADARSAT-1 flying over a map of Canada.

In 2013, Canada's new $5 bill was put in circulation, complete with a depiction of a spacewalking Canadian astronaut near Canada's contribution to the ISS - the Dextre remote manipulator hand and Canadarm2. The design was unveiled by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield during his stint in 2013 as commander of the ISS.

Four Canadian coins also relate to space. A $20 coin issued in 1996 as part of a series marking the history of Canadian aviation depicts the Avro Arrow and Jim Chamberlin, who helped design the Arrow and went on to design the Gemini spacecraft for NASA. In 2006, the Royal Canadian Mint honoured astronaut Chris Hadfield's installation of Canadarm2 on board the International Space Station with two coins, one a $300 gold coin and the second a $30 silver coin. For the International Year of Astronomy in 2009, the mint issued a $30 silver coin.


"Canada's Space Story On Its Stamps," The Astrophile, November-December 2003, 251-254.

"Canada's 40-Year Spaceflight Heritage," The Astrophile, May-June 2003, 118-123.


  1. Great post on the subject! I was hoping someone would cover that territory, and you've done a superb job! Now here's a set of stamps you may NOT have seen before! : )

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