Editor’s note: Because the Trivia Geek couldn’t be bothered to account for the U.S. Memorial Day holiday, we’ve been forced to dig into our archives to present this Classic Geek, which originally ran on June 7, 2005. Look for fresh Geek Trivia on June 5, 2007.
For anyone who’s ever had trouble receiving express or
overnight mail, just be thankful that one of the U.S. Navy’s late-1950s
solutions to the problem never caught on — because, if it had, you could be ducking
unarmed cruise missiles right now. On June 8, 1959, roughly 48 years ago, the U.S.
submarine Barbero conducted the first
and last test of so-called “Missile Mail,” a concept that involved
using a warhead-less Regulus cruise missile to carry — I’m not making this up — postal
The U.S. Postal Service devised the Missile Mail test as a
combination experiment and publicity stunt in the hopes of finding alternative
uses for military technology and more expeditious methods of delivering the
mail. At the time, U.S. Postmaster General Arthur Summerfield hailed Missile
Mail as “the first known
official use of missiles by any post office department of any nation… [and an
event] of historic significance to the peoples of the entire world.”
on to predict 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.”
Clairvoyant, Summerfield was not. Considering the absurdity
of using cruise missiles for civilian purposes during the Cold War, to say
nothing of the inherent danger of firing weapons over civilian locations at
regular intervals, or the high probability that the four-cent (domestic) and eight-cent
(international) stamps on the rocket-powered postage didn’t exactly cover the
cost of using high-priced ordnance to pick up the delivery pace, it should come
as no surprise that Missile Mail was a one-time-only affair.
This ballistic boondoggle, however, proved useful to more
than just your friendly neighborhood Trivia Geek. Practitioners of philately,
otherwise known as stamp collectors, also derived a fair degree of enjoyment
from the Missile Mail stunt, as it created a cache of cancelled stamps (from a makeshift
post office aboard the Barbero
itself) borne by a missile — an event that, despite Summerfield’s predictions,
never reoccurred. In other words, Missile Mail may have been a fiasco, but it
did manage to create some niche collectors’ items.
Still, Summerfield wasn’t all wrong; the world was on the verge of “rocket
mail” — just not the type he envisioned. Ten years later, when men did walk
on the moon (and Missile Mail was long forgotten), the crew of Apollo 11
secretly made a whole new family of philatelic collectibles possible.
WHAT STAMP-COLLECTING ITEM DID THE CREW OF APOLLO 11
What celebrated icon of stamp collection did Neil Armstrong
and Buzz Aldrin secretly create during the Apollo 11 moon mission?
As part of a closely guarded publicity stunt withheld from
the general public, Aldrin and Armstrong carried with them the master die for a
specially made commemorative airmail stamp, which they used to print a die
proof while on their lunar mission. In layman’s terms, Aldrin and Armstrong
stamped the first letter postmarked from the moon.
Of course, anything designed for publicity purposes isn’t
really a secret — U.S. Postmaster General Winton M. Blount announced the moon
mail plans a week before Apollo 11 launched — but prior to its formal
announcement, the project was never even committed to paper. U.S. Postal
Service employees served as verbal messengers, never detailing the moon mail
plans in print, let alone entrusting those documents to third-party couriers or
even the post office’s own letter carriers. Even President Richard Nixon played
Despite all the preparation, Armstrong and Aldrin weren’t
able to carry out their postal mission to the letter. Scientific research came
first on Apollo 11, so neither astronaut had time to cast the die proof while
the lunar module was on the moon.
Instead, they cast the die proof during Apollo 11’s return
trip. So, while neither rain nor sleet nor snow can impede the U.S. Postal
Service, apparently lunar expeditionary duties can keep part-time postmen from
their appointed — albeit extraterrestrial — rounds.
Thus, the “MOON LANDING/USA/JUL/20/1969” postmark
on the moon letter is technically inaccurate. It didn’t actually occur during
the moon landing, and it occurred on July 22, 1969.
The space-traveling master die itself never actually cast
any official stamps. However, copies based on that master die churned out more
than 150 million 10-cent airmail stamps depicting “the first man on the
moon” descending the ladder of the lunar module.
And despite meticulous efforts to ensure an accurate
representation of both the lander and the spacesuit worn by Neil Armstrong, the
image could not cite Armstrong by name. That’s because federal law prohibits
the U.S. Postal Service from immortalizing living persons on U.S. stamps.
As to the moon letter, the master die, and the special
lightweight hand stamp used to create the lunar postmark, all three became centerpieces
of a traveling exhibition during the Apollo heyday. Since, however, each of
these items has disappeared ostensibly into the U.S. Postal Service archives,
representing perhaps the holy grail of philatelic collectibles — and intriguing
bits of Geek Trivia.
Get ready for the Geekend
The Trivia Geek‘s blog has been reborn as the Geekend, an online archive of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant — unless you’re a hardcore geek with a penchant for science fiction, technology, and snark. Get a daily dose of subcultural illumination by joining the seven-day Geekend.
The Quibble of the Week
If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of
this week’s Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article.
Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and
discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia. (To read the original quibble from this article, see
This week’s quibble comes from the May 16 edition of Geek Trivia, “The (space)pen is mightier.” TechRepublic member terrus disputed my timeline of cabin atmosphere compositions in manned NASA spacecraft.
“The 100 percent oxygen environment was continued into the Apollo program. The 100 percent oxygen environment was listed as a hazard after the fire that took the lives of the Apollo 1 astronauts.”
Too true, dear reader — however, you’ll note that I wrote “the 100-percent oxygen environment present in all pre-Apollo manned NASA spacecraft.” That is, I said all pre-Apollo craft had 100 percent oxygen atmospheres — not that Apollo craft didn’t. Mostly, I just didn’t have space to mention the Apollo 1 disaster.
Certainly, no Apollo-era manned NASA spaceflights had pure oxygen cabin air, as the Apollo 1 fire happened during a launch test. All subsequent flights had mixed-oxygen-nitrogen air environments. After the Gemini program, no American went into space breathing pure cabin O2. But it was a nice quibble, so keep them coming!
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The Trivia Geek, also
known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who’s
duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic
books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.