NPF: MISSILE MAIL WAS EXACTLY WHAT IT SOUNDS LIKE

When America's economic and military power were peaking in the late 1950s, our government and military were willing to pour money into some pretty dubious ideas. Why? We could afford it. Everything gets the green light when not only is the national mood one in which the threat of the Soviet Union is the dominant concern but economic growth is averaging double-digit percentages annually. Sometimes in hindsight it appears as though we did things that had no real point just…because we could. Because why not. Because rockets and jet planes and big bombs are cool and hey we heard rumors that the Soviets are working on it and by the way did we mention the 12% GDP growth last year?

It is important to preface the following story with the context that in 1959 the U.S. was losing the Space Race and lagged behind the Soviet Union, albeit temporarily, in the development of large missiles. This was considered of extreme importance because of course every missile used to loft something heavy into space was also a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead or ten halfway around the world.

Perhaps eager to have a "Look! A success!" headline or perhaps simply for the sheer hell of it by the permissive logic of the Pentagon in those days, on today's date in 1959 the submarine USS Barbero launched a Regulus cruise missile at Jacksonville, Florida. Despite the many arguments in favor of doing so, the missile was not intended to destroy Jacksonville. Its warheads had been replaced with two mail containers filled with commemorative US Postal Service items to celebrate the first delivery of "Missile Mail." So, in case any part of this is unclear, the Navy collaborated with the Post Office to see if mail could be delivered by cruise missile.

Why? I mean. Why the hell not, right?

The Postmaster General enthused – with a straight face, apparently – 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." The Pentagon, however, admitted candidly that there was no possible way to make rocket delivery of mail cost effective, with each cruise missile costing the 2017 equivalent of over a million dollars. The stamps carried by the Regulus mail had a value of four cents each. It didn't take a UNIVAC to figure out that this wasn't actually about delivering mail. A more reasonable interpretation would be that, with Sputnik and the American failure(s) to imitate its launch, the US wanted to show off that it could fire a cruise missile 1) from a submarine, and 2) with comparative accuracy over a long distance. No doubt the Post Office enjoyed the publicity and all involved, in that wholesome gee-whiz 1950s way, considered the stunt Neat-o, but other than to stimulate the American imagination and send Russian surveillance personnel to bang off a dispatch to Moscow about a cruise missile there was no real reason for doing this.

Wasteful? Sure. At the same time, it's hard to argue that Americans are happier today now that shenanigans of this type have been eliminated from the budget in favor of orienting all of the Pentagon's funds directly to killing foreigners.

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35 Responses to “NPF: MISSILE MAIL WAS EXACTLY WHAT IT SOUNDS LIKE”

  1. Emerson Dameron Says:

    My first free email account was @rocketmail.com, an early indicator that the tech industry would inherit the postwar government's hubris.

  2. mago Says:

    There are always a few Tomahawks.

  3. joel hanes Says:

    It was a time of vast possibilities.

    Just a few years before, in 1955, the US had conducted Operation Teapot
    http://www.popsci.com/science/article/2012-09/us-tested-beer-drinkability-after-detonating-atomic-bombs-nearby
    http://blog.nuclearsecrecy.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/1957-The-Effect-of-Nuclear-Explosions-on-Commercially-Packaged-Beverages.pdf
    and one of the research topics was "How edible might the remaining food be after a nuclear war?", where the term "food" is here broadened to include water and beer.

    So they buried a bunch of beer and scattered more about in fake houses, etc. and shot an atmospheric fission warhead and then retrieved the beer.

    And drank it.

    And of course, in

  4. Mo Says:

    Now we're down to drones?

  5. Major Kong Says:

    Regulus was a pretty awful missile.

    To use it the submarine first had to surface (bad). Then, not one but two submarines were required to remain on the surface and guide the Regulus to its target.

  6. geoff Says:

    "At the same time, it's hard to argue that Americans are happier today now that shenanigans of this type have been eliminated from the budget in favor of orienting all of the Pentagon's funds directly to killing foreigners."

    C'mon Ed, you forgot graft, waste, and corruption!

    @MK, thanks for the additional technical info. This sounds like something straight out of the C.B. Colby books that fascinated me in elementary school ; )

  7. Major Kong Says:

    @geoff

    I wasted many an hour in elementary school pouring over those books. The school library also had a Time-Life book on aviation that had a two-page spread of a Boeing 707 cockpit.

    I used to sit there and stare longingly at that 707 cockpit. Many years later I got to fly it as the KC-135.

  8. postcaroline Says:

    Today we use US Postal Service and Post Office interchangeably, but in 1959 the USPS did not yet exist. The Post Office was a cabinet level agency until 1971. Thus, when the Postmaster General enthused about the capabilities of missile mail, he was doing so as the last in the line of presidential succession. I mention all this because while this is a wacky story, as a cabinet level agency the Post Office was in a more elevated position (politically and economically) in 1959 than it is today. Also, by the late 1950s the Post Office was already under pressure to "innovate" and show that it was capable of automating more functions and therefore making service more "efficient." Sure, missile mail is a gimmick, but with the decline of the Railway Mail Service in the 1950s, the Post Office was likely eager to seize any chance to develop new delivery models.

  9. Brutus Says:

    “… it's hard to argue that Americans are happier today now that shenanigans of this type have been eliminated from the budget in favor of orienting all of the Pentagon's funds directly to killing foreigners ….” Wasteful shenanigans are eliminated? Don’t think so. (The intent of the sentence is awfully easy to misread.) The part you got unequivocally right is funding the killing of foreigners, which I consider a complete waste. Other than enriching some defense contractors and pretty much ruining the lives thousands of U.S. military personnel, not to mention the hundreds of thousands of lost and ruined lives of foreigners, what’s it all for? Then of course let’s be mindful of bank and corporate bailouts. I’d say shenanigans have only accelerated despite their obvious lack of affordability compared to the 1950s.

    Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime (or until the fish are gone). Give men an unrestricted government budget and see what happens next.

  10. Safety Man! Says:

    As far as taxpayer funded projects go, I'd rather have rocket mail over the Atlanta Braves Stadium

  11. Monte Davis Says:

    Major Kong: My father worked in PR for American Airlines and brought home _Aviation Week_ for me to drool over just as they were adding _& Space Technology_ to the title. I got a morning off from school the day AA inaugurated its BOS-LAX 707 route (1958 or 59?), and said when I saw the plane that it looked a lot like the KC-135 photos I'd seen.

    "Bill Allen's no dummy," he said, which meant nothing to me until years later, when I grasped how much of the R&D heavy lifting for both civil aviation and the space program had been done on DoD's dime.

  12. Kaleberg Says:

    This was a prestige prototype. It's no different from what Amazon and others are doing with drone delivery and self driving cars. It's a way of showing off the technology and hinting at the future. I vaguely remember a German or Swiss rocket group doing a launch like this in the Alps, a way of demonstrating that rockets are useful. They were amateurs, but back then only amateurs thought that rockets could be useful. The home computer amateurs in the 1970s were like that too.

    If you look at the history of technological demos, a good number of them were busts. The technology was never found useful or was decades away from being useful. Look at the auto-giro, nuclear powered fracking or Cugnot's steam powered car in the 18th century. They were all dead ends, but we do have helicopters, mud powered fracking and automobiles.

    It's easy to look at missile mail and laugh. The price was insane. So was the cost of the first television program. Automobiles were playthings for millionaires. The control systems of the day were wretched by modern standards and let's not get into the safety issues. Look at all the passenger jet crashes in the early 1950s. The Comet had square windows that concentrated stress and ruptured the fuselage. There was no way that we were all going to be crammed like sardines into one of those things, not that we would ever be able to afford it.

    We don't have missile mail today. Jet aircraft are fast enough. On the other hand, we have car airbags which are basically rocket engines aimed at the occupants to keep them from hitting the interior of the car too quickly in a crash. They've been pretty successful in cutting automobile fatalities. The military has all sorts of missiles. Soldiers and terrorists love their rocket propelled grenades. Not everyone has a great pitching arm.

    One of our big problems nowadays is that we don't have enough government waste. When the government has the resources for these boondoggles, the technology gets spewed far and wide. People pick up useful pieces and often wind up building amazing things that benefit everyone. This was even more true before the government started focusing on technology transfer and building up intellectual property. There is nothing like a patent expiration to accelerate innovation. Corporate waste, usually enforced by the threat of antitrust action, was also a boon. Look at Xerox PARC, Bell Labs, IBM Watson and a host of other such research centers. We don't enforce antitrust enough and we encourage IP rights rather than the commons, and we've been living on our legacy seed corn for decades now.

  13. ronzie Says:

    How did the mail carrying missile land?

  14. Robert L Bell Says:

    Damn, Kaleberg, I wish I had written that. Good Job!

  15. Delbort Says:

    Ed, if you sat down and wrote some kind of compendium of the bizarre shit the US government did during the Cold War, I know at least five people that are getting copies for Christmas.

  16. Jon Says:

    Make that six

  17. mothra Says:

    I fucking love it.

  18. Bitter Scribe Says:

    There's no doubt about it, the 1950s were a great time.

    Unless you were black. Or gay. Or a single mother. Or a woman who wanted to be something besides a housewife. Or a liberal who could be tarred as a Communist, especially if you worked for the government. Or…pretty much anyone besides a straight white male.

  19. joel hanes Says:

    help help

    comment with two links in moderation for a couple days now

  20. Alex Says:

    This would have been just great until some nervous radar tech mistook the mail for an attack and exterminated life on earth.

  21. Major Kong Says:

    My parents both came of age during the late 1950s.

    My father was an "ethnic white", which meant he was one notch above minorities but not fully "white" either. My mother was from Appalachia.

    Neither one has ever waxed poetic about the 1950s.

  22. mago Says:

    @Bitter Scribe: so what's new?

    MK: yeah, class will out no matter the time and place.

    The 50's were bleak.

    And now? And now?

  23. Katydid Says:

    I'd buy any book Ed wrote.

    @BS and MK; my parents were both the children of immigrants, and they felt it sharply even though my father was blond and blue-eyed with whitey-white skin and my mother was dirty-blond with hazel eyes and whitey-white skin. While on the one hand they are part of the MAGA, "the 50s were the best of times" mindset, they've also spoken about how they felt they had to try harder to fit in and embrace the American culture portrayed on tv and the movies. My mother has spoken about being ashamed of her parents, who spoke English with accents (even though they were the "right" kind of immigrant). The 1950s were no paradise for most of the American population, even if it looks like on the surface it was.

  24. Major Kong Says:

    When someone on the right brings up the 1950s I'm sure to remind them about the 91% top marginal tax rate and 50% unionized workforce.

  25. RP Says:

    "When someone on the right brings up the 1950s I'm sure to remind them about the 91% top marginal tax rate and 50% unionized workforce."

    It it wasn't broke, why did we fix it?

  26. Major Kong Says:

    By 1958 the postwar recovery had run its course and we entered a pretty bad recession.

  27. Mo Says:

    Good one, Kaleberg. Thanks.

  28. Katydid Says:

    Speaking of outrageous stunts–does anyone know if shoe stores actually did x-ray childrens' feet in their shoes to make sure they fit, or is that just an urban myth?

  29. Wim Says:

    Katydid–yes. Look up shoe-fitting fluoroscopes.

  30. Bessemer Mucho Says:

    The example that sticks in my mind is the suggested use of atomic bombs to excavate a new canal through Nicaragua Yeah, that would've worked out fine.

  31. seniorscrub Says:

    And then there are these:

    http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2011/11/wacky-worst-nuclear-weapons/

    Including
    "The Davy Crockett: This tactical nuclear recoilless rifle with a 0.01-kiloton payload was designed for use on conventional battlefields. The lightest nuke ever, it had a top range of 2.5 miles, which meant it stood a good chance of irradiating the very soldiers firing it. Starting in 1956, around 2,100 were produced; the Army deployed it until 1971. The video below shows a Davy Crockett being live-fired before a military audience (skip to 3:35 for the explosion): “It detonated perfectly, releasing its lethal radiation!” "

  32. democommie Says:

    Gummint likesem some boondoggelry.

    The M-14 was a great weapon–if you had lots of people available to carry your spare ammunition. It was built to replace the M-1, M-1 carbine, M-3 submachine gun and BAR. It wasn't able to do all of the things that those four weapons were capable of and, like the M1, it was relatively heavy and it's ammunition was over twice as heavy as that for the M-16.

    However, that rifle was retooled/redesigned several times and is currently back in use in Afraqistan as a superior weapon for medium distance (300-500 meters) engagements which are apparently more the norm in the current situation.

    So, good weapon–bad weapn–good weapon–just like a lot of other stuff.

  33. JustRuss Says:

    "Despite the many arguments in favor of doing so, the missile was not intended to destroy Jacksonville."

    *snort!*

  34. Older Says:

    Not only were kids' feet X-rayed to check the fit of shoes, the machines were used as a amusement for kids while their mother was shopping for shoes for herself or other children. "Look Josie, there's your toes!" (wiggle wiggle) Lots of laughing.

    The x-ray machine was right out there in the center front of the store (to show how modern and scientific they were) and kids would urge mom or dad to stop in at the shoe store for just a minute so they could look at their "feet bones".

  35. Katydid Says:

    @Older; so how have the Boomers survived so long after being completely radiated?!?!

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