These days with our lightening fast internet connections it’s easy to forget how people were always thinking of ways to shift their envelopes around the place that little bit faster, and what could be faster than blasting it into orbit in an enormous rocket?
Rocket mail has been attempted by various organizations in many different countries, with varying levels of success. Sadly it has never become a viable option for delivering mail, due to the cost of the schemes and numerous failures.
Freidrich Schmeidel launched the first rocket mail with 102 pieces of mail between two neighbouring villages in Austria. Specially printed postcards marked in German with “Flown in Instrument Rocket” bear stamps from the flights. Another teuton, Gerhard Zucker, experimented in the 1930s with simple powder rockets similar to fireworks. After moving to Britain, Zucker attempted to convince the General Post Office that postal delivery by rocket was viable. After initial demonstrations on the Sussex Downs in southern England, rockets were launched on 28 and 31 July 1934 over a 1600-metre flight path between the Hebridean islands of Harris and Scarp. Around 1.07 m long with a diameter of 18 cm, the fuselage was packed with 1,200 envelopes. Unfortunately for Zucker both rockets exploded, though most of the smaller second cargo, which included survivors of the first, was saved.
The first successful delivery of mail by a rocket in the United States was made on 23 February 1936, when two rockets that were launched from the New Jersey shore landed on the New York shore, some 300 metres away. Previously there had been some less successful attempts…
In 1959 the US Submarine, USS Barbero assisted the Post Office in its search for faster mail transportation with their first and only delivery of “Missile Mail”. On 8 June 1959, Barbero fired a Regulus cruise missile (as shown in the top picture)— the nuclear warhead having earlier been replaced by two Post Office Department mail containers — at the Naval Auxiliary Air Station in Mayport, Florida. Twenty-two minutes later, the missile struck its target.
The USPS had officially declared Barbero a branch post office, and delivered some 3000 pieces of mail to it before Barbero left Norfolk, Virginia. The mail consisted entirely of commemorative first day covers addressed to President Eisenhower, other government officials, the Postmasters General of all members of the Universal Postal Union, and so on. Their postage (four cents domestic, eight cents international) had been stamped “USS Barbero Jun 8 9.30am 1959” before the boat put to sea. In Mayport, the smouldering Regulus was opened and the mail forwarded to the post office in Jacksonville, for sorting and routing.
Upon witnessing the missile’s landing, Summerfield, the Postmaster General proclaimed the event to be “of historic significance to the peoples of the entire world”, and predicted that “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. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail.”
In reality the Department of Defense saw the launch more as a demonstration of U.S. missile capabilities. To this day, most experts believe that the cost of using missile mail could never be justified.
However, some Technologists like Robert Zubrin, of Mars Society fame, think that rocket mail, or at least ultra-elite business package delivery may become commercially viable with the development of fully reusable rocket systems, particularly single-stage to orbit vehicles. Such systems would allow package delivery anywhere in the world in 30–45 minutes.