The Regulus I missile, the US Navy’s first operational cruise missile, fired from the USS Barbero on June 8, 1959. Photo courtesy of the National Post Museum.
On June 8, 1959, a Regulus I guided missile launched from the USS Barbero, a Navy submarine parked in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Florida. The rocket raced away at some 600 miles per hour and then traveled more than 100 miles to the naval auxiliary air station in Mayport near Jacksonville, Florida.
The first official “missile mail” rocket experiment safely landed on the runway after just 22 minutes of flight time. Rather than a warhead, the rocket’s payload included 3,000 identical letters addressed to President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Vice President Richard Nixon, all members of Congress, Supreme Court justices, US governors, top federal officials, postmasters general from around the world, and all crew members of the submarine.
Arthur E. Summerfield, the postmaster general of the US Postal Service, was on hand to inspect the landed rocket. Inside, he found the two red and blue metal containers he had personally placed within the fuselage before the historic flight.
“This peacetime employment of a guided missile for the important and practical purpose of carrying mail, is the first known official use of missiles by any Post Office Department of any nation,” Summerfield enthusiastically said afterward. “Before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles.”
Summerfield anticipated the new postal transportation system to take off. However, his passion for the project failed to convince the Department of Defense to move forward with the concept of missile mail. At that time, the Pentagon was in the midst of the Cold War, and the top priority was the development of nuclear-armed, intercontinental ballistic missiles.
With the world on the brink of nuclear war, the missile mail concept took a back seat to more pressing concerns. Nevertheless, the public missile mail experiment also highlighted the reliable and accurate capabilities of the Regulus I, the first operational US Navy cruise missile.
Although the Cold War’s defense priorities deflated dreams of missile mail, Americans and other nations had already been interested in the concept for decades.
America’s earliest missile mail test occurred in Texas in 1936. During that unofficial experiment, two rockets filled with mail launched into the air. One exploded and scattered burning envelopes across the test area. The second rocket crashed into a wine shop along the Mexican border.
Multiple other countries experimented with missile mail in the 1930s, including Germany, Great Britain, Australia, France, Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Yugoslavia, Spain, Mexico, Cuba, Denmark, and India. However, the concept never really took off.
Matt Fratus is a history staff writer for Coffee or Die. He prides himself on uncovering the most fascinating tales of history by sharing them through any means of engaging storytelling. He writes for his micro-blog @LateNightHistory on Instagram, where he shares the story behind the image. He is also the host of the Late Night History podcast. When not writing about history, Matt enjoys volunteering for One More Wave and rooting for Boston sports teams.
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