In 1959, the USPS Delivered Mail by Guided Missile for the First and Last Time

In 1959, the USPS Delivered Mail by Guided Missile for the First and Last Time

Stephanie Schoppert - November 2, 2016

In 1959, Postmaster General Arthur E. Summerfield believed that he could not only find a peacetime use for guided missiles but help modernize mail delivery. Delivery by guided missile would not only be fast but it would be accurate and could have the potential to be more versatile than using typical planes. To that end he approached the U.S. Department of Defense.

The Department of Defense agreed to the plan and set up the USS Barbero Navy submarine to launch the missile. A Regulus I rocket was used for the attempt. The warhead was removed and allowed enough space for two blue and red post office boxes to fit. The boxes were loaded with 3,000 copies of a letter written by the Postmaster General. He had the letters addressed to all the prominent members of the U.S. government, postmaster generals around the world and all the crew members of the USS Barbero.

The letter was a reveal of the experiment which had not been publicly announced prior. It told of the cooperation between Secretary of Defense McElroy, the Department of Defense and the Post Office Department in “utilizing scientific advancements for peaceful purposes.” The Postmaster General stated the “great progress being made in guided missilery will be used in every practical way in the delivery of the United States mail.” The Postmaster General was truly determined to make mail delivery by mail a true path forward for the postal service.

The first launch took place while the USS Barbero was on a training mission in international waters. The missile was launched on June 8th, 1959 and traveled 100 miles to the Naval Auxiliary Air Station at Mayport, Florida. The flight took a grand total of 22 minutes and arrived precisely at its destination. The Postmaster General hailed it as a success and publicly announced that the cooperation between the Defense Department and the Post Office Department would continue. He stated that before man made it to the moon, mail would be delivered across the U.S. and across the world by missile.

So if the test was a success why was it never repeated and why did the Post Office not move forward with missile mail as Postmaster General Summerfield announced? Read on to find out.

In 1959, the USPS Delivered Mail by Guided Missile for the First and Last Time
The Postmaster General was completely in the dark about the real reason why the Department of Defense agreed to his proposal. They had no intention of creating a missile delivery system for the mail and thought the idea was impractical from the start. It did offer a very public way to show the improved technology of the U.S. missile program however.

The Regulus I missile was designed to carry a nuclear warhead. So even though the U.S. was currently at peace, the Department of Defense saw the Postmaster General’s request as a way to show the world just how accurate and advanced the guided missile systems of the U.S. military had become. The Regulus I missile was designed to fly up to 600 miles and was meant to be a thinly veiled threat to Russia or any other country that would dare threaten the U.S. during the Cold War.

The Postmaster General was devastated and humiliated when the Department of Defense pulled their support from the project. But even though the test was successful, the Department of Defense saw no way to make missile mail delivery worthwhile. The missile was only able to hold 3,000 pieces of mail and the missile cost $267,000, which meant that it would need to be able to carry much more mail and at a much higher cost to be profitable. In the 1950s, mail was already being delivered by plane, so while missile mail was faster, most people were satisfied with the length of time it took to get mail by plane. There was no demand for mail that could be delivered in a matter of minutes, especially at the price that the Post Office would need to charge to recoup costs.

While many amateurs have tried to deliver personal mail by rocket and handmade missile, there have been no further attempts by the USPS to deliver the mail by missile or rocket.

Regulus I stats

Cost: $267,000

Weight: 13, 685 pounds

Warhead Weight: 3,000 pounds

Length: 32 feet 2 inches

Operational Range: 500 nautical miles

Speed: Subsonic