THE FIRST MAIL TO ORBIT OUR PLANET.
WHITE, THOMAS DRESSER. Typed Letter Signed ("Thomas D. White"), 1 p with conjoined blank, 9 x 7 inches, Vandenberg Air Force Base, [November 12, 1960], to General Lyman L. Lemnitzer, together with postal cover bearing cachet "First Air Mail - Outer Space," canceled Sunnyvale, California, November 15, 1960. The letter and envelope taped at head on verso to mount, framed with a photograph of Lemnitzer.
"In order to reach you, this letter will have flown a distance of almost one-half million miles both within and without the earth's atmosphere, travelling 17 times around the world...."
Rocket mail has an extensive history, but the first mail to leave the Earth's atmosphere was flown on a V-2 rocket fired from New Mexico in 1947. Reaching an apogee of 64 miles, the mail briefly entered outer space. A Thor-Able rocket launched from Florida in 1959 carried what it called the "First intercontinental missile mail," also reaching outer space.
On November 12, 1960 at Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc, California, an Agena-B rocket was launched carrying Discoverer 17 (also known as Corona 9012), an optical reconnaissance satellite. On board Discoverer were a secret panoramic camera, a biological research payload (the satellite's official purpose), and perhaps 28 pieces of mail similar to the present example. This was, as USAF Chief of Staff White writes, "the first time that letters have been sent by a satellite ... in the tradition of airmen who less than thirty years ago pioneered in the first use of airmail."
After "travelling ... at speeds greater than 18,000 miles per hour," the photographic film and the mail were returned to Earth in a Satellite Recovery Vehicle that separated off from Discoverer. The SRV, descending by parachute, was captured over the mid-Pacific by the grappling hooks of the USAF plane Pelican 2.
It would seem that these, the first pieces of orbital mail, were delivered only to the elite of the political, defense, and aviation worlds. The sole other example that we have traced at auction was sent to the first NASA Administrator. The present letter was sent to General Lemnitzer, Chief of Staff of the US Army, in commemoration of the joint efforts towards "bringing this Nation one step nearer to man's transcendence over the limits of the earth." An extraordinary philatelic rarity.