Long before Tongasat was dreamed up, rockets were being used to carry mail in Tonga.
While the rocket service was intermittent and may have blown up more letters that ever got through, it produced more solid results than anything that has happened since.
The story of Tonga’s involvement with rocketry began in 1882 when William Travers took over a plantation on Niuafo’ou.
Passing ships were unable to call at the steep-sided island and it was difficult to even land a rowing boat.
According to several versions of the story, Travers asked the Tongan postal authorities to put his mail inside a ship’s biscuit tin and have it thrown overboard from a Union Steamship Company vessel.
The ship’s captain would blow the ship’s siren when the tin went over the side and Travers would send out a swimmer to collect it. Soon he was sending mail out the same way.
However, the reality was that even the strongest swimmer might spend hours fighting strong currents to get to the mail and when the weather was bad it was impossible to swim out to the ship.
It was then that gunpowder-powered rockets were brought into play. Ship’s captains began to fire the rockets at Niuafo’ou.
Unsurprisingly, when fired from the deck of a sailing ship or a steamer batting its way through rough seas, the mail rockets didn’t always travel smoothly.
Hissing and spluttering, they usually hit the island, but contemporary accounts say that sometimes they overshot it altogether and landed in the sea.
Sometimes they landed in the lake or just got lost in the bus and one at least one occasion the mail burst into flames in mid-air.
Whatever the outcome, when the rockets were in the air, everybody stopped work to see what would happen.
While the rocket mail was used to cover occasional emergencies, elsewhere in the world serious experiments in carrying mail by rocket continued for many decades.
In India tests were carried out in Calcutta and Darjeeling in the 1930s and the press breathlessly asked whether rocket mail would one day beat air mail, the telephone and radio.
There were experiments in many other places, most spectacularly in the UK when German scientist Gehard Zucker fired two rockets loaded with mail between the Scottish islands of Harris and Scarp. Both rockets exploded, but most of the mail was saved.
The most expensive experiment in rocket mail took place in 1959 when the American submarine USS Barbero fired a cruise missile which had had its nuclear warhead replaced by two Post Office Department mail containers.
Tonga’s space race
Since the days of the Niuafo’ou mail rocket, several schemes have been floated to put Tonga into space. In 1990 US entrepreneur Matt Nilson founded Tongasat, which is now embroiled in lawsuits and, according to the supreme Court, unlikely to be able to pay its court costs.
Later on, there were plans to launch tourists into orbit from a spaceport in the kingdom. In 2003 California company InterOrbital systems claimed it would put tourists into a seven day stay in low orbital.
By 2010 the company had lowered its sights and was claiming it would soon launch a rocket carrying a 30kg payload a launch site on the king’s estate on the southern tip of ‘Eua this year, with the aim of launching a rocket before the end of 2010.
The proposal for space tourism came to nothing. After 20 years nothing has ever quite matched the hissing, fizzing – and sometimes burning – Niuafo’ou rocket mail.
The main points
- Long before Tongasat was dreamed up, rockets were being used to carry mail in Tonga.
- While the rocket service was intermittent and may have blown up more letters that ever got through, it produced more solid results than anything that has happened since.
- The story of Tonga’s involvement with rocketry began in 1882 when William Travers took over a plantation on Niuafo’ou.
For more information
Space travel to be Tonga’s new money spinner
Interorbital Planning Launch Facility in Tonga
Space rockets seen as weapons
Space Cover of the Week, Week 210 (April 21, 2013)
The story of Tin Can Mail