March 3 2009 03:17 PM

Next summer will mark the 50th anniversary of one the oddest forms of mail transportation ever used. On June 8, 1959, the US Navy fired a Regulus I missile from the USS Barbero (SSG-317) shortly before noon. The missile was directed to a safe landing twenty-two minutes later at the Naval Auxiliary Air Station at Mayport, Florida, near Jacksonville. Inside were 3,000 letters signed by Postmaster General Arthur E. Summerfield addressed to a range of U.S. and international officials including President Eisenhower, U.S. cabinet members, Members of Congress and Supreme Court Justices, governors, and postmasters general from all members of the Universal Postal Union.

Summerfield referred to the missile's flight as an "experimental exploration of a major new technology of communication that is of historic significance to the peoples of the entire world.[1]" In this same post-flight press release the PMG also boasted 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.[2]" Summerfield's exuberance for the use of missiles to deliver mail was as overblown as his rhetoric. The Regulus' airmail flight would be the first and last time American officials would use a missile to carry mail.[3] The flight, however, was more than an odd experiment in carrying mail.

Ostensibly an experiment in communication transportation, the Regulus' mail flight sent a subtle signal that in the midst of the Cold War, the US military was capable of such accuracy in missile flight that it could be considered for use by a civilian agency such as the post office. The space used for the containers was space that was originally designed to hold the missile's nuclear warhead. The missile employed a then state-of-the-art guidance system that could precisely deliver a thermonuclear weapon from a distance of 600 miles. The trip from the USS Barbero to Mayport was only 100 miles in distance, but it helped to illustrate additional uses for the weapons technology.

Because the experiment had not been publicly announced beforehand, Summerfield's office received several letters from stamp collectors who complained that they had not been given the opportunity to place items aboard the flight. Others grumbled that the envelopes were posted with 4-cent stamps, instead of the 7-cents then required for airmail service. As odd as one might find much of this aspect of postal history, it must be noted that at least no one requested the addition of a "missile service" stamp rate.

In the four decades since the flight, some of the Regulus I letters have found their way into public hands. Some made their way to dealers shortly after the flight, selling at just over $100. The letter addressed to the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution and former Postmaster General James Farley remain in the National Postal Museum's collections, as do the two blue and red metal containers designed to carry letters in the missile's warhead.