Where's My Jetpack?

Flying cars and jetpacks. Weren’t we all supposed to have those by now?

You know, along with the silver jump suits... that’s what they always told us in those science fiction movies and stories all those years ago. The world of tomorrow always looked so exciting. And yet, here we are in 2010 and no one seems to be flying to work in hover-cars or have a personal jetpack, although I think everyone was a little relieved that those expected silver jumpsuits didn’t become standard issue.

(images via 1, 2, Popular Science, TM Russia 1970)

The jetpack, the rocket belt or rocket pack are names given to a number of different devices worn on the back that use jets of escaping gas to allow a single person to fly. Such technology has been featured in movies, TV, novels, short stories and comic books for a very long time....

(top right image: art by Jeff deBoer)

However, despite advances in technology, jetpacks have not turned out, so far at least, to be very practical as a mode of personal transportation. Different types of jetpacks have been used on space missions, but the earth’s atmosphere and gravity, as well as limitations of the human body, have thus far hindered the use of jetpacks by the military or by the general public.

Nazi's Himmelsturmer / Skystormer

After conducting extensive research for an article about German Wonder Weapons earlier in 2009, I shouldn’t have been surprised to discover that jetpacks were yet another one of the technologies explored by the Germans during World War Two.

The Himmelsturmer, which translates as Skystormer, was the result of experiments in the latter days of the war. The device employed two low-power rockets, which were strapped to the chest and back of the pilot, enabling him, in theory at least, to fly 180 feet in the air. It was hoped it would allow engineering units to leap across rivers or minefields and was not designed for regular troops.

No images of the Himmelsturmer appear to have survived, but here are a couple of images of what it might have looked like:

(images via 1, 2, top right: early Moore Rocket Belt test)

Flights, or rather jumps, were measured in seconds, so there was no real descent time. The device shut down once the throttle was disengaged, so it was very simple to operate and there don’t appear to have been any injuries during tests. Like a lot of other German technology, the Himmelsturmer ended up in the hands of the US military after 1945. Bell Aerosystems did a few tests using a secure tether, since nobody wanted to take a risk with such an unknown and potentially unpredictable contraption. The Himmelsturmer disappeared into history, but jetpack research took off, so to speak, soon afterwards.

A dizzying height of eighteen inches... it's a start

The U.S. Army began researching rocket pack technology in 1949 and by 1952 successfully tested a rocket pack, which for a few seconds lifted a man into the air. In 1953, Wendell F. Moore began working for Bell on a jetpack using hydrogen peroxide powered rockets. A device called the Jumpbelt was demonstrated in 1958, but only had a marginally longer flight time than the early tests. The first real rocket belt flight took place in April 1961, when Harold Graham reached a dizzying height of eighteen inches, but flew for 133 feet in just 13 seconds. Later that year, Graham demonstrated the belt at the Pentagon and then for President Kennedy at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

(images via 1, 2)

Longer, faster flights... but still too loud to be practical

In the early sixties, the US army contracted Bell Aerosystems to build a rocket pack. Powered by hydrogen peroxide, it was commonly known as the Bell Rocket Belt or man-rocket. Over the following years, Bell improved the duration of flights, reaching speeds up to ten mph, but a jet powered model, which had been tested with longer flight times, was scrapped because the army considered it too big and heavy. Mostly though the fact that someone couldn’t stay aloft for very long stopped the rocket belt from ever being put into production. Bell’s more substantial jet belt device developed in the later sixties had a flight time of around twenty minutes, but the military had been considering it for surveillance work and it was simply too loud to be practical.

(images via - Jet Flying Belt 1969)

"The Bell gang liked to attach rockets to almost anything — even this everyday office chair" (source):

(images via)

To read about the first rocket belt pilots, visit this website.

After that, there was no further serious work done on jet pack technology and the devices have been used mostly for short demonstrations at entertainment venues, sports stadiums, monster truck shows and so on, as well as for scenes using stuntmen in movies and TV shows. At the opening of the summer Olympics in Los Angeles in 1984, 100,000 spectators in the stadium and around 2.5 billion television viewers around the world witnessed a rocket pack flight. Michael Jackson also used a stunt double to zoom off in a jetpack at the end of his concerts during the nineties. The Rocketman franchise currently uses a rocket belt based on the Bell Aerosystems model, giving demonstrations around the world.

(images via)

Nasa’s Manned Maneuvering Unit isn’t strictly a jetpack, but deserves a mention here. The MMU is a propulsion backpack, utilizing gaseous nitrogen as a propellant, which was operated by US astronauts on three shuttle missions in 1984. The unit allowed the crew to take part in spacewalks without a tether away from the shuttle and was used at the time to retrieve two communications satellites, which were malfunctioning. The satellites were captured, put in the payload bay for stowage and returned to Earth. The MMU wasn’t used after the third mission but has been succeeded by a smaller device known as the Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue or SAFER, first flown in 1994. Also using gaseous nitrogen, it is a simplified version of the MMU and intended for emergency use only:

(image via)

The Soviet space program had a similar device known as the SPK, occasionally used by cosmonauts on flights to the Mir space station. It was bigger than the American model, used oxygen instead of nitrogen and was attached to a tether for safety. The SPK was still attached to the exterior of the space station when Mir was destroyed on reentry after it was decommissioned in 2001.

(left: NASA's Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue; right: Russian SPK device)

Jet packs have been featured in books, magazines, movies, TV, comics and other areas of popular culture for decades. Buck Rogers, Rocketman, Adam Strange, Boba Fett... In the movie Thunderball in 1965, James Bond flew a jetpack, which was based on the Bell Aerospace Rocket Belt. This type of jetpack also featured in the TV series Lost in Space:

Flight time: 9 minutes. Cost: $200,000

Jet Pack International of California has updated some of the early rocket belt designs with modern materials and fuels, increasing flight times to over thirty seconds. The company offers regular public demonstrations, but also sells some jetpacks and rocket belts. The T-73 model runs on regular jet fuel and is a true jet pack. The flight time is nine minutes and the device sells for $200,000. Thunderbolt Aerosystems also from California has plans to develop a jet pack with a flight time in excess of thirty minutes. Currently, their hydrogen-peroxide/kerosene blend rocket pack flies for around seventy five seconds and costs over $90,000.

(images via)

(left image credit: William S. Higgins, right image is Monocopter by Andreas Petzoldt)

Not really a jet pack, but probably the most promising of new developments - and the one that is already produced commercially: New Zealand's Martin Jetpack is big, bold, and pretty efficient - read more info

While the vast majority of us may never have the financial resources to own one of these, it’s incredible to think that such devices are being seriously developed and flight times are definitely increasing. Maybe one day we’ll all have a personal jetpack after all?

The Backyard Rocketeer

From his backyard in Morelos, Mexico, Juan Manuel Lozano has engineered and test-flown a staple of rocket-powered conveyances, from rocket belts to bikes to carts to the most ludicrous personal helicopter we've seen this side of Inspector Gadget - each of them powered by his home-brewed ultra-pure hydrogen peroxide jet fuel. He's like a one-man turn-of-the-century flying machine montage. Watch a very entertaining and informative interview with this man here.

(image via)

Here is a great video about the history of rocket belts:


The greatest invention that never was?

A lot of the material in this article is also covered in much greater detail and with a personal touch in "Jetpack Dreams: One Man’s Up and Down (But Mostly Down) Search for the Greatest Invention That Never Was", by Mac Montandon, Da Capo Press 2008. Mac Montandon’s book investigates how such a cool idea straight from science fiction became reality, but then simply ran out of gas, never making it into the mainstream.

Montandon’s personal journey is a fascinating, engrossing and often amusing look at the greatest invention that never was, or at least the greatest one that never seemed to prove to have a practical application, such as the cell phone, internet, television, cars and so on. We learn just why the jetpack has not become an established mode of personal transportation and the book is very well written by someone who longs for the personal, affordable and practical jetpack to be real, yet has to reluctantly accept, for now at least, that it isn’t.

(image credit: Sacha Maric & Tom Gottelier, for Libertine-Libertine)

Jetpacks for everyone were supposed to be an integral part of a glorious future, but the reality of zooming through the air like a superhero continues to be elusive. The technology remains expensive to develop, the fuel difficult to obtain and flight times too short to make the device practical for everyday use. While Montandon ultimately found that rather depressing, he hasn’t given up on his dream. You can check out Montandon’s website at www.jetpackdreams.com.

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