BEIJING –- China’s space program is renowned for its secrecy, but a newly opened “space post office” provides an enticing glimpse into the future, and a lot of novelty stamps.
“As far as I know, we’re the world’s only space post office,” Liu Dong (name changed on request), a clerk at the post office, said. Despite its name, the office is located in Beijing, part of a secretive area known as Aerospace City. When it opened last month, the office was partnered with a "virtual” branch aboard the Shenzhou-8 spacecraft, meaning that in theory the office extended 343 kilometers above the earth. “Any parcels which go on China’s spacecraft will be sent from here.” Liu said. Space-mail services aren't available for public use yet, though. “We can send mail anywhere in the world but not into space,” Liu said.
The office sells a bewildering range of stamps, postcards and envelopes commemorating past Chinese space missions. “Exploring the firmament, creating permanent glory,” one book of stamps proudly proclaims in English, stamps inside featuring Chinese astronauts heroically posed with space-helmets under their arms. Chinese space stamp collectors, numerous enough to run their own dedicated website, visit the office for the unique “Space City 1” post-mark.
Some of the office’s customers seem genuinely proud of China’s space program, which has developed rapidly since China put its first astronaut into space in 2003. “China is undeveloped in a lot of ways, but we’re one of the most advanced countries in space technology” Zhi Jing, a teacher, said as she waited for some envelopes to be stamped with the office’s postmark. For others, space is a welcome escape from everyday life. “It’s just fun to think about space flight,” Hu Shanshan, who travelled from a distant part of Beijing to by space-themed envelopes, said. “My friends will enjoy seeing the post mark.”
Other visitors to the post office didn't appear to care much about the space program. “Its totally unrelated to my life,” Guo Xu, a construction worker visiting the office to mail money back to his family, said. “I suppose [the space program] is good for China’s international status,” he said, “But it doesn’t have anything to do with ordinary people like us.”
The office’s location in Space City, the organizational-center of China’s space program, means that genuine astronauts do use the post office. “They’ve come here to send parcels,” Liu said. The office’s official head is China’s first astronaut, Yang Liwei. “But he doesn’t come in very often,” Liu said.
The office is likely to roll out more space-related services, with local media reporting that visitors will soon be able to send emails to Tiangong-1, a Chinese spacecraft currently orbiting the earth. Chinese couples will be able to use the post office to send their wedding vows into space, one post office manager told the local press. Meanwhile China’s space program marches on, with plans to send the first female Chinese astronaut into space next year. “I expect we’ll have a new stamp for that,” Liu said.