December 12, 1977 12:00 PM

The stamped envelope was a rarity all right—a bit of moon-flight memorabilia taken 238,857 miles and back in 1971 by Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the lunar surface. Last month, at a San Francisco auction, an Italian stamp dealer snapped up the cover, as stamp buffs call it, for $4,200—and set off shock waves in the space agency world.

It was not the first time. A furor erupted in 1972 when three Apollo 15 astronauts smuggled aboard 400 first-day covers, then sold 100 in Germany for $150,000. Their action drew a swift reprimand from NASA, and the remaining covers are now in government archives.

Mitchell, who retired as a Navy captain five years ago, sees his case as entirely different. “One of the NASA support crew, a philatelist, came rushing up, handed me a package and said, ‘Take these with you,’ Mitchell recalls. ‘Someday,’ he said, ‘you’ll be glad to have them.’ ” The package, which contained 55 covers, was sealed, inventoried and listed. “We all had permission to carry 2.406 pounds in personal items,” Mitchell says. “The covers were taken aboard with no commercial interest in mind.”

Almost seven years passed. Mitchell remarried in 1973 and added Anita Reddick’s three children to his own two. He began to worry about planning his estate. “The only way to appraise the value of the covers is to see what the market brings,” experts advised.

Mitchell, who lives in Palm Beach, Fla., is prospering elsewhere in his life. While continuing his interest in parapsychology and human potential research, he has become chairman of InSci, a personnel and consulting firm, at $80,000 a year. Meanwhile NASA officials, leery of commercial gain from space flights, are fuming. “Were he still an astronaut,” said one NASA official, “there would be an instant reaction.”

Mitchell shrugs it off. “He called me after the sale,” says San Francisco auctioneer Christopher Harmer. “He seemed quite happy. I would be, too, if I had 54 more.”

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