That Time A Missile was Used to Deliver Mail
Updated: Aug 13, 2022
June 8, 1959 marked the first and last time a missile was used to deliver mail in the United States. A U.S. Navy Regulus I was launched from the USS Barbero on a hundred-mile flight to deliver 3,000 letters from Virginia to Florida. Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield, the man behind the endeavour, deemed it "of historic significance to the peoples of the entire world."
The mail-carrying Regulus I launching off of the USS Barbero
The premise was tested as far back as the early 1930s using unguided rockets in Austria. According to a 1934 issue of Popular Mechanics, the rocket would launch at a 65° angle upwards until its fuel ran out, at which point the letter case, an asbestos-lined container, would float down to its destination below, having traveled only a few miles. These flights apparently successfully carried 200 to 300 letters from one small town to another.
Meanwhile in the northeastern United States, things were not going as well: On February 9, 1936, a catapult-launched rocket-powered airplane attempted to deliver mail from Greenwood Lake, New York, six miles south to Hewitt, New Jersey over a frozen lake. The vehicle anticlimactically flopped onto the ground as soon as it cleared the catapult. According to reports at the time, more than 1,500 people showed up to witness the next launch attempt on February 23. The vehicle's name was Gloria and it traveled approximately 984 feet (300 m) before again crashing into the ground. Although it was badly damaged, it did, however, cross the state line into New Jersey, marking the first time a rocket had been used to deliver mail in the United States. These small attempts showed the world it was possible to deliver mail via rocket.
Gloria in New York prior to its flight
The SSM-N-8A Regulus I was a nuclear-capable turbojet cruise missile. It was first tested in March of 1951 and weighed nearly 7 tons, or 9,000 pounds. Its two boosters produced 33,000 pounds (14,968.5 kg) of thrust and a range of 500 nautical miles (926 km) at speeds just under mach 1, or the speed of sound. The missile could precisely deliver a thermonuclear weapon to a target 600 miles (965.6 km) away.
"Before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to England, to India, or to Australia by guided missiles." - Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield
While the launching submarine, the USS Barbero, was docked at Norfolk, Virginia, Postmaster General Summerfield placed two blue and red metal containers, holding a combined 3,000 letters, inside the Regulus I's fuselage prior to the flight. Each of these letters were identical and were addressed to President Dwight Eisenhower, Vice President Richard Nixon, Cabinet members, Supreme Court Justices, all members of Congress, state governors, and Postmaster Generals from around the world, as well as the officers and crew of the USS Barbero. This experiment was not announced to the public before it happened and Summerfield's office received several letters from stamp collectors complaining they had not been given the opportunity to place personal items aboard the flight. Some of these envelopes eventually found their way into the hands of the public.
The Regulus I was fired from the USS Barbero shortly before noon on Monday, June 8. It arrived at the Naval Auxiliary Air Station in Mayport, Florida, near Jacksonville, 22 minutes later. Despite Postmaster General Summerfield's enthusiasm for the implementation of missile-delivered mail and the success of the experiment, this would be the only time a missile was used to carry mail in the United States. The ultimate downfall was its impracticality; delivering mail using airplanes and conventional methods of transportation were cheaper and probably more reliable in the long run. Nevertheless, this "peacetime employment of a guided missile" was a unique experiment in communication transportation and a subtle flex of the U.S.'s missile accuracy during the Cold War. It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime event.
Regulus 1 landing in Florida PG Summerfield retrieving letters
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Limer, Eric. "That Time the USPS Launched a Missile Full of Letters Off a Navy Submarine." Popular Mechanics. 2016. https://www.popularmechanics.com/flight/a21601/usps-first-official-missile-mail-1959/
"Missile Mail." United States Postal Service. 2008. https://about.usps.com/who-we-are/postal-history/missile-mail.pdf
Pope, Nancy. "Regulus Missile Mail." Smithsonian National Postal Museum. https://postalmuseum.si.edu/collections/object-spotlight/regulus-missile-mail
"Regulus 1 missile mail container." Smithsonian National Postal Museum. https://postalmuseum.si.edu/object/npm_0.234863.8
"West Milford Museum celebrates 80th anniv. of rocket mail flight." northjersey.com. 2016. https://www.northjersey.com/story/news/passaic/west-milford/2016/03/03/west-milford-museum-celebrates-80th-anniv-of-rocket-mail-flight/94528796/
All images belong to the Smithsonian.