Rocket Mail: When Technologies Fail to Rise

One of the episodes which the United States Post Service (USPS) is trying to sweep under the rug, is their attempt to use rocket mail. i.e. send mail on actual rockets. Oh, and you might want to know that the first rocket to be used that way by the USPS was a nuclear missile.

Missilemail.jpg

The idea of rocket mail was originally developed in germany in the 19th century, but never really took off. However, as missile technology improved, the USPS took note of the idea and decided to give it a shot. And so, the first official American rocket mail was launched in 1959.

The USPS chose for that purpose a Regulus cruise missile armed with a nuclear warhead. They stripped took the warhead off, and replaced it with mail containers that were supposed to withstand the impact when the missile hit the ground. The missile was launched from Virginia and reached its destination in Florida in just 22 minutes. Since the two states are around 700 miles apart (~1,200 km) that means the mail got to its destination at a speed of around 3,500 km/h. That’s pretty impressive for mail delivery.

The US Postmaster General got so excited that he publicly claimed that the event is –

“of historic significance to the peoples of the entire world”

and 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.”

Except, as we know very well now, they really didn’t stand on the threshold of rocket mail. The costs of rocket mail were too high – particularly for the infrastructure involved, which included the launch systems and the missile itself which couldn’t be reused. What’s more, at the same time that rocket mail was first attempted, international air travel became dramatically cheaper, so that important packages could easily be delivered in just a single day over the ocean, with no need for rockets of any kind.

Rocket mail is an historic invention which many futurists should consider whenever they gush about new technologies taking over the world. In the end, it all comes down to cost, and if that new technology is more expensive than what you currently use – or even from other technologies that are being developed at the same time – it probably won’t be used after all.

But at least the idea of rocket mail finally found use in Mission Impossible II after all – where Ethan Hunt’s sunglasses are being delivered to him via a rocket. The US Postmaster General can be proud indeed.

 

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This post was originally written as an answer to a question at Quora.  You are welcome to browse my content there and enjoy more answers about the future.

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