A decade before the Apollo 11 launch, the U.S. Postal Service proclaimed that it would deliver mail by rocket long before people walked on the Moon — and then it launched 3,000 letters from a submarine to prove the point.
It wasn’t the first time the idea had been tried. In February 1931, Austrian engineer Friedrich Schmiedl launched his Experimental Rocket 7 from a hillside in southeast Austria, laden with 102 letters destined for the nearby village of St. Rudegund, about two miles away. Schmiedl had been experimenting with solid-fuel rockets since 1918; it was private work, not carried out under the auspices of a university or an engineering company. Earlier Schmiedl rockets had gathered data on atmospheric conditions and tested aerial photography techniques, but Experimental Rocket 7 was supposed to do something much more practical: deliver the mail.
And it worked like a charm, drifting to rest on its parachute in St. Rodegund, where people eagerly collected their rocket-borne letters. If black powder fueled Schmiedl’s rockets, sheer novelty fueled his postal enterprise; over the next few years, sales of special stamps, along with collectors’ appetites for letters delivered by rocket, funded several more rocket mail launches to St. Rodegund and the slightly more distant Kumberg, four miles from Schmiedl’s mountain launch site.
That’s how similar projects, launching in various parts of the world at around the same time as Schmiedl’s, funded their launches. The philatlic community wanted rocket mail stamps and letters so badly that they were happy to fund the rocket launches just to create more material to collect. In fact, there’s a whole sub-branch of philately — the collection and study of stamps and other postal material, such as letters and envelopes — devoted to rocket-borne mail, just as there’s a slightly larger branch concerned with air mail material. Schmiedl has been honored on postage stamps as far from his Austrian home as Paraguay. His rocket mail project, however, was short-lived.
The Austrian Post Office wasn’t really interested in contracting with Schmiedl for rocket mail, or in adopting the technology themselves. And in 1934, they passed regulations that blocked the kinds of special stamp sales Schmiedl was using to fund his operation. A year later, the Austrian government banned private ownership of explosive materials, which meant Schmiedl couldn’t have fueled his rockets even if he’d had the funding. Austria’s rocket mail service was officially grounded.
But the concept hadn’t quite reached the end of its trajectory. In June 1959, U.S. Postmaster General Arthur E. Summerfield presided over the launch of a Regulus I cruise missile, carrying 3,000 letters in place of its usual nuclear warhead, from the submarine USS Barbero. Actually, the missile was carrying 3,000 copies of the same letter, a message from Postmaster General Summerfield to U.S. government officials and postal officials worldwide, advocating the use of rocket mail and expressing the U.S. Postal Service’s commitment to the idea.
“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 declared on the occasion of the launch.
It took 22 minutes for the letters to reach Naval Auxiliary Station Mayport from the submarine. There, the letters were sorted and distributed into the postal network to travel the rest of the way to their destinations like normal, Earthbound mail. Despite the letter’s proclamation, however, the U.S. Postal Service never experimented with rocket mail again. There has been some very well-founded speculation that the showy launch was just a stunt to demonstrate the speed and accuracy of the Regulus I, which would normally deliver a nuclear warhead.
A decade later, of course, the Apollo 11 mission launched three astronauts to the Moon. Among all the things accomplished by their landing, Neil Armstrong’s first step onto the lunar surface also laid to rest Postmaster General Summerfield’s prediction.
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