OTD: First U.S. ‘missile mail’ delivery

On today’s date in 1959, the United States used a nuclear-capable cruise missile to deliver mail from the Navy submarine USS Barbero.

Launched towards an auxiliary naval base in Mayport, Fla., it travelled more than 160 kilometres in 22 minutes and was the first and final official U.S. “missile mail” delivery. Each of the 3,000 letters mailed via the SSM-N-8A Regulus’s fuselage was sent from Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield to prominent Americans, including President Dwight Eisenhower, according to a 2016 story by Popular Mechanics.

Each letter was also held in a commemorative cover, one of which sold for $299 US (including buyer’s premium) during a 2008 sale by Heritage Auctions. Offered as Lot 1269, the cover carries a datestamp reading “JUN / 8 /9.30AM / 1959” and is backstamped with Jacksonville, Fla.

OTHER MISSILE MAIL

Also known as “rocket mail” or astrophilately, this area of postal history has even older roots.

“The first official missile mail in the United States may not have happened until 1959, but the premise had already been tested quite thoroughly, though with unguided rockets,” reads the Popular Mechanics story.

“A 1934 issue of Popular Mechanics highlights the first regular and consistent rocket mail service as having been in Austria:

‘Each rocket carries 200 to 300 letters from the starting point, the Shocket, to Radegund or Kunberg, in the neighborhood of Graz, whence the mail is forwarded by regular postal service. All of the mail rockets have functioned perfectly, each flight being mad according to scheduled plans without the loss of a single letter. Bearing special “rocket mail” stamps, the letters are sealed in a metal container to prevent damage, but this precaution has been unnecessary, due to the accuracy with which the rockets have arrived at destination.’

A cover mailed as part of the first – and final – official U.S. ‘missile mail’ delivery brought nearly $300 at auction in 2008.

“The rockets would launch at 65 degrees and power upwards until they rain out of fuel, at which point the letter case – quite literally an asbestos-lined container with an outer coating of more asbestos – would float down to the destination below, having covered a handful of miles. A short distance, but a valuable trick if that distance was particularly treacherous.”

The earliest known unofficial transportation of U.S. mail by rocket took place on Feb. 23, 1936, according to “Missile Mail,” a single-page document published by the U.S. Postal Service in 2008. That day, two rockets transported mail more than 600 metres across a frozen lake from Greenwood Lake, N.Y., towards a post office in Hewitt, N.J.

“The rockets crash-landed before reaching their destination and slid along the ice; the postmaster of Hewitt obliged by removing the two bags of mail and dragging them the rest of the way to the Post Office.”

A presentation showing covers and labels from all 10 rocket mail experiments by the Queensland Air Mail Society from 1934-47 is available for free through the Philatelic Specialists Society of Canada website. It includes complete souvenir sheets of the associated Cinderella labels plus extracts from newspaper reports, contemporaneous photos and postcards, and signatures of the principal participants.

Canadian rocket mail launched from 2011-14 is also highlighted in the June 2014 edition of The Canadian Aerophilatelist.

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