Photo illustration by Zélia at ILOVEGRAPHICS.NET
It's August, 1928. A Ford Model T sputters past the newsstand where your ten-year-old self stands motionless, gawping at the cover of Amazing Stories. A man confidently hovers above a field in a fitted helmet and skin-tight red jumpsuit. He waves at a woman — smitten with his prowess — as two lesser men sulk into the periphery, envious of the magical harness strapped to our hero's back.
The Frank R. Paul illustration on the cover is the first mainstream depiction of a personalized jetpack some thirty years before a team of crafty Nazis would reportedly build the first working prototype. Incredibly, Amazing Stories, Volume 3 Number 5, also contained the inaugural Buck Rogers story, Armageddon--2419 A.D. That's two stories of rocket-propelled humans for just twenty-five cents... not bad.
Now, fast forward to 2011. You're 93 years old, Germany is a democracy and electric cars are all the rage. And even though televisions now babysit your grandchildren you still don't own a jetpack. Of course, even Buck Rogers had to wait until the 25th century for his, so quit your moaning and reminisce with us as we look back at the age of jetpacks that never was.
1928: The Skylark of Space
Although the fictional character of Anthony Rogers first appeared in the August 1928 issue of Amazing Stories, that's not our man "Buck" on the cover. Instead, the pulp magazine cover features an illustration of the suave Richard Seaton character from The Skylark of Space testing a workable space drive powered by a newly discovered element "X." Like any respectable sci-fi tale of its day, the system features a Tesla coil in its bid for pseudo-scientific legitimacy. Here's how author Edward E. Smith describes the scene:
"Laughing merrily, the four made their way to the testing shed, in front of which Seaton donned a heavy leather harness, buckled about his shoulders, body and legs; to which were attached numerous handles, switches, boxes and other pieces of apparatus. He snapped the switch which started the Tesla coil in the shed and pressed a button on an instrument in his hand, attached to his harness by a small steel cable. Instantly there was a creak of straining leather and he shot vertically into the air for perhaps a hundred feet, where he stopped and remained motionless for a few moments. Then the watchers saw him point his arm and dart in the direction in which he pointed. By merely pointing, apparently, he changed his direction at will; going up and down, forward and backward, describing circles and loops and figures of eight. After a few minutes of this display he descended, slowing up abruptly as he neared the ground and making an easy landing."
And with that the hook was set, reeling in generation after generation of optimistic flyboys hoping for a jetpack they could call their own.
1928: Anthony 'Buck' Rogers
Enter Anthony Rogers, the fictional character in the story Armageddon—2419 A.D. from the same August 1928 copy of Amazing Stories. Author Philip Nowlan would later change his hero's name to the more familiar "Buck" in the January 1929 comic strip. Although Edward Smith got the cover story, Nowlan's vision of the jetpack is more fully formed. Whereas Smith saw the jetpack as an iterative step in the testing of his interplanetary propulsion system, Nowlan saw the jetpack as an end unto itself. Nowlan's "Inerton belt" (powered by Inerton, the densest substance in the universe!) provided the propulsion for "jumpers" and "floaters." Here's how Nowlan explains the technology, correctly predicting both jump belt and jetpack technologies 30 years before their invention:
""Jumpers" were in common use at the time I "awoke," though they were costly, for at that time inertron had not been produced in very great quantity. They were very useful in the forest. They were belts, strapped high under the arms, containing an amount of inertron adjusted to the wearer's weight and purposes. In effect they made a man weigh as little as he desired; two pounds if he liked."
"Floaters" are a later development of "jumpers"—rocket motors encased in inertron blocks and strapped to the back in such a way that the wearer floats, when drifting, facing slightly downward. With his motor in operation, he moves like a diver, headforemost, controlling his direction by twisting his body and by movements of his outstretched arms and hands. Ballast weights locked in the front of the belt adjust weight and lift. Some men prefer a few ounces of weight in floating, using a slight motor thrust to overcome this. Others prefer a buoyance balance of a few ounces. The inadvertent dropping of weight is not a serious matter. The motor thrust always can be used to descend. But as an extra precaution, in case the motor should fail, for any reason, there are built into every belt a number of detachable sections, one or more of which can be discarded to balance off any loss in weight."
Unfortunately, it's the lack of Inertron that will ultimately doom the jetpack to novelty status.
1945: Flying Nazis
Legend has it, that Germany took the first successful steps towards building a working jetpack during WWII. The "Himmelstürmer," or Sky Stormer, is said to have been based upon the same Schmidt pulse jet system at the core of the V-1 "buzz bomb" missiles that terrorized the citizens of London. The two wearable pulse tubes used by the Himmelstürmer were much shorter than the V-1, enabling troops to make relatively short jumps of about 180 feet over mine fields, waterways, barbed wire, trenches, and other obstructions using a fuel mixed with pressurized oxygen.
The flier strapped one pulse tube to his back for forward flight and the second, less powerful unit equipped with hand grips, on his frontside for steering. It's said that at least one Nazi jetpack was delivered to Bell Aerosystems in the US after the war. Unfortunately, no images of the original Himmelstürmer seem to have survived. The images above and to the left are simply artist interpretations.
1949: Rocket Man
While Bell Aerosystems toiled with its Nazi jetpack spoils, the US public was distracted by Rocket Man, a 1949 character that appeared in a number of movie serials through 1955. Naturally, Rocket Man's suit is powered by "atomic power" (not Inertron or Element X) which helps him recover the stolen "Decimator" from evil genius, Dr. Vulcan — a device powerful enough to convert the US from imperial units to the decimal system. Scary stuff. Hey, is that a Tesla coil?
1955: Flying Pie Pan
In 1955, the Navy, with the help of Hiller Helicopters, was busy with its "flying pie pan." Instead of jets it used two opposite-rotating fans installed horizontally to thrust downward. The pan's two engines created 100 horsepower. Should either engine fail, "the thing will fall like a brick," says the Popular Science article, "When that is overcome, pie-pan commuting from the back yard to the office may be a possibility."
1958: "Flying like a bird may be nearer than we think."
We're calling it: December 1958 is the date when the jetpack over-promising began. Just look at the breathless introduction to this Popular Science exclusive featuring a demonstration of Thiokol Chemical Corporation's flying belt. "Man's age-old dream of flying like a bird, free of clumsy machinery, may be nearer than we think." Oh please — that statement was made over 50 years ago and we still don't have "jump rockets," "flying belts," "jump belts," or any other permutation of the Buck Rogers jetpack. Face it, we've been Tozered.
1958: Jump Belts
The December 1958 issue of Popular Science contained photos of two previously unseen jump belts. The image to the right is a "crude early version" of the one-man jump belt shown assisting an unknown soldier to a world record broad jump. If you lean in closely you can just about make out the outline of Sasquatch lurking in the forest.
The five-canister "jump belt" (aka, Project Grasshopper) from Thiokol Chemical Corporation was built from off-the-shelf hardware. Each canister could be burned separately for several seconds, or all at once for full power and would last about a minute if the canisters were burned in sequence. The propellants would not explode if dropped or punctured and new cans of propellant could be snapped in to replace spent canisters in "less than a minute." Can you sense the optimism?
1958: Flying Belt
This thrust nugget appeared in the same December 1958 issue of Popular Science. It's the first time that we've seen an early prototype of what would later become known as the jetpack. This "flying belt" was built by Reaction Motors. A workable solution in "two years" that could fly "miles," you say? Tell us more, because the first successful flights would be measured in feet and wouldn't start for another three years.
1959: Soldier of the Future
The US Army's ultimate weapon was revealed in a hotel lobby in August of 1959. The soldier of the future was surprisingly accurate, except for the jump belt that promised to give our future soliders the ability to make rocket-propelled leaps from cliffs and across streams.
April 20, 1961: First Untethered Flight!
On April 20th, 1961, a little more than a week after Yuri Gagarin became the first human to breach outer space, Harold Graham propelled himself to the incredible height of four-feet above the Earth. The secret flight lasted 14 seconds, covering a distance of less than 35 feet at a speed of about 6mph. It marks the very first successful outdoor test of a jetpack in free flight (no tethers). Fittingly, the flight took place in Niagara Falls, New York, otherwise, known as "the capital city of Earth" to Buck Rogers fans. The Rocket Belt used was developed by Wendell F. Moore for Bell Aerospace under contract with the US Army's Small Rocket Lift Device (SRLD) program.
Moore's dream of rocket flight started in 1953 when the aeronautical engineer began doodling jetpack designs at his kitchen table. Naturally, he tested the Rocket Belt himself even breaking his knee in an accident after his fuel tank snagging a support line in an early tethered flight. The Bell design pushed five US gallons (19 liters) of 90 percent liquid hydrogen peroxide through tiny nitrate-coated silver screen catalysts — enough fuel for about 20 seconds of flight. Hydrogen peroxide fuel was chosen for its power-to-weight ratio, capable of creating about 300 pounds of thrust as super-heated jets of steam escape a pair of nozzles. In other words, it produced a lot of noisy hot air.
June 8, 1961: First Public Flight!
On June 8, 1961, Harold Graham demonstrated Bell's "portable Army rocket" for the first time to an incredulous public. The flight saw Graham fly over a truck at a height of 15 feet landing 150 feet away after 14 seconds of air time. Nevertheless, the "ear-splitting" flight was described by the New York Times as "short but spectacular." By December 1961 Bell's 100-pound rocket belt would carry a man as high as 35 feet or a distance of 368 feet when barely skimming the ground.
By 1962, Moore's design was considered "perfected" with a top speed of 60mph, a top altitude of 60 feet, and 21 seconds of operation. Unfortunately, it also created 130 decibels of deafening noise — that's about as loud as a jet taking off from 200 feet away. Moore died in 1969 but variations of his original Rocket Belt design would be demonstrated around the world many years after his death. To this day, when you hear the word "jetpack," you're probably imagining Moore's Bell Rocket Belt design just before your sense of jilted entitlement sets in.
1962: Jetpack Astronaut
By November of 1962, four years after NASA was established, we get our first look at the "human spaceship." This 10-nozzel pack developed for the Air Force by Chance-Vought, was designed to use nitrogen-pressurized hydrogen peroxide jets to propel future spacemen away from their craft for up to four hours at a time at a distance of a few miles. The SMU (Self-Maneuvering Unit) pictured ultimately lead to the more aptly named (but bulkier) AMU (Astronaut Maneuvering Unit), MMU (Manned Maneuvering Unit), and SAFER (Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue) packs used on actual NASA flights. This Popular Science article also marks one of the first uses of "jet pack" in popular media.
Unlike the fabled Greek myth, the 1964 project ICARUS died without ever getting off the ground.
1965: Rocket Chair and Pogo Stick
In 1965, Bell created a "rocket chair" ejection seat concept using a regular chair from the Bell cafeteria. Moore and Bell also experimented with a two-man Pogo as a method of moving Apollo astronauts around on the moon. No, seriously.
1965: Bond, James Bond
In 1965 the jetpack became a mainstream phenomena when Sean Connery strapped on a Hollywood mock-up of the Bell Rocketbelt in Thunderball. He wears another, unnamed pack, for an underwater battle. In short, 007 does it everywhere with the smug confidence of a man who knows that fewer people would fly a jetpack than be shot into space.
Bill Suitor, Jetpack legend
Bill Suitor and Gordon Yeager (not Sean Connery) were the actual pilots of the Bell Rocketbelt in Thunderball. Bill, a jetpack legend, approached his neighbor for a job in 1963 — he was just 19 years old. Bill's neighbor, Wendell F. Moore, just happened to be the inventor of the Bell Rocketbelt. Suitor would spend the next 30 years demonstrating the Bell jetpack more than a 1,000 times in over 40 countries across the globe.
It was Suitor who flew the jetpack during the opening ceremony of the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles seen by an estimated 2.5 billion people. 2.5 billion very disappointed people.
1965: Lost in Space
From 1965 to 1968, Lost in Space television viewers could marvel at professor John Robinson's use of a Bell Rocket Belt and tin-foil clothing — Oh Daddy, is right! The series was set in the impossibly far-off future of 1997. Sounds magical.
1966: 'Buck Rogers' flying belt patented
The June 1966 edition of Popular Science publishes word of a patent for a new, as of yet unseen, "jet belt" from Bell using a turbojet engine and conventional jet fuel. Note that the co-inventor is none other than Wendell F. Moore.
1968: Buck Rogers flying belt "a large hop closer today"
On June 27th, 1968, a New York Times article proclaimed that the Buck Rogers flying belt was "a large hop closer today" when Bell Aerosystems revealed its successor to Wendell Moore's Jet Belt design. The new jetpack was powered by the world's smallest (for its day) turbojet engine (about one foot wide and two feet long) built by Williams Research to burn standard kerosene-type jet fuel (stored in clear plastic tanks) with a range measured in minutes and miles, not seconds and feet. Or so they claimed.
Alas, it was also heavier than the original and just as loud. The article mistakenly says that the Bell Rocket Belt was "flown more than 3,000 times without injury or accident since the first test on April 27, 1960." Although the Rocket Belts safety record was indeed impressive (especially since it flew beneath parachute level), by his own admission, Wendell Moore broke his knee during an early test flight on February 17th, 1961. Unfortunately, it would be just one of many jetpack-related lies to come.
April 7th, 1969: First 'Jet Belt' flight
On April 7 1969, pilot Robert Couter of Bell (now Textron Bell Aerosystems) flew the first successful free flight of the "Jet Belt" or "Jet Flying Belt." He flew a distance of more than 300 feet at about 20 feet off the ground. The Popular Science article proposes that "maybe someday your 'second car' will be a flying belt garaged in the hall closet." Yeah, someday, but not 42 years later.
1976: Hipster Jetpack
Unfortunately, the 70s and 80s provide a near dearth in terrestrial jetpack innovation. There was simply too much Pabst to drink after the scientists finished feathering each other's hair.
The NASA Years
In 1984 NASA used its version of the jetpack, the 24-nozzel nitrogen-powered Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU), on three space shuttle missions. After an uneventful first test, the MMU nearly caused a satellite to careen out of control during an improvised recovery mission. The MMU performed better in its third mission, helping astronauts capture two satellites and return them to the orbiter payload.
After the Challenger disaster, the MMU system was determined too risky and replaced by SAFER (Simplified Aid for EVA Rescue). SAFER, developed by the Robotics Division of NASA at the Johnson Space Center, was first flown in 1994. It functioned as an emergency, self-rescue apparatus in case an astronaut became separated from his tethers during a space walk. In 2000, two astronauts used the nitrogen-powered SAFER to perform a "gentle 50-foot flight" while tethered to the shuttle.
1992: Jetpack Jacko
It's 1992 — just a year after the theatrical release of The Rocketeer — are you really surprised that the man from Neverland would own a jetpack? See if you can spot the switch.
Theft, Kidnapping, and Murder
Stanley then brought Barker to court receiving a $10 million reward from the judge. Barker refused to pay and found himself stuffed in a box, locked from the outside. After eight days Barker managed to escape. Police arrested Stanley and in 2002 he was sentenced to life in prison, since reduced to eight years.
The motivation? Fame and an expected payday of $25,000 per flight a jetpack operator could expect for advertising, movie stunts, and events. Oh, and stupidity.
The RB-2000 was never found.
Think Jetpack Jacko was an oddity, try this one on. In 1992, Brad Barker set off to built the Rocketbelt-2000 with two partners: Joe Wright and Larry Stanley. By 1994 they had a working prototype of the original Wendell Moore design, modified with lighter components and an increased fuel stock. On June 12th, 1995, our old friend Bill Suitor flew the RB-2000 for 30 seconds (9 seconds longer than the previous record of the Moore design).
A disagreement between Stanley, who fronted most of the money, and Barker resulted in Barker bludgeoning Stanley with a hammer. Barker was convicted of assault. Stanley subsequently wins a court order giving him ownership of the RB-2000. When Stanley goes to Wright's auto shop to collect the RB-2000, it was gone, and so was Barker. So, Stanley goes to Joe Wright for answers who turns up dead, so badly beaten that Wright's body had to be identified from his dental records.
Juan Manuel Lozano Gallegos
Today's hydrogen peroxide rocket belts still mimics Moore's original design only with an increased operating capacity of 34 seconds thanks to advances in materials and larger 10 gallon fuel tanks. Unfortunately, the noise, costs, piloting difficulties, and short flight duration continues to limit the packs to roles in advertising, movies and entertainment. Still, a handful of enthusiasts like TAM, Go Fast!, Thunderbolt Aerosystems (Bill Suitor's new employer), Ky Michaelson, and Dan Schlund have kept the dream alive.
2006: Isabel Lozano becomes first 'rocket woman'
One man in particular, TAM's Juan Manuel Lozano Gallegos, is particularly obsessed with jetpacks — any form of rocket propelled travel, really, including rocket cars, bikes, and even helicopters. The self-taught engineer has single-handedly built eight rocket belts (Bell Aerosystems only built four) at a cost of about $35,000 each — his first prototype cost about $500,000 to develop. And since you can't purchase 90 percent concentrated hydrogen peroxide anymore (pharmacies only sell a 3 percent concentration), Juan built a machine to create his own 90 percent solution. Juan is so obsessed with jetpacks that he convinced his daughter — Isabel Lozano — to become the world's first "rocket woman" on August 11th, 2006.
After decades of nothingness in terms of true jetpack innovation, in steps Yves Rossy, aka, "Jet Man," who in November 2006 strapped four, Kerosine-fueld Jet-Cat P200 jet engines to a pair of semi-rigid carbon-fiber wings and rocketed himself Superman-like for a proper six minutes and nine seconds.
In 2008, he hit a descent speed of 189mph over the Alps and in 2010 he dropped from a hot air balloon at 7,900 feet and proceeded to fly for a total of 18 minutes before landing by parachute, wings folded. Oh, and he flew his powered wing over the Grand Canyon. This guy is a hero; a mad, mad hero.
In March 0f 2005, Raymond Li and Jetlev conducted the first manned flight test of the water-powered jetpack. In March of 2011, the company completed development of its $100,000 R200 which it claims will ship in the spring of 2012.
The system relies upon a 4-stroke engine and fuel carried by a floating "boat unit" that's tethered to the jetpack with a 33 foot hose. The pack itself weighs just 30 pounds and produces 420 pounds of thrust when water is forced through the 4-inch diameter hose. Top speed is listed at 25mph with a duration of 4 hours and 80 mile range.
That makes the Martin Jetpack more of a 280 pound helicopter backpack that's still too noisy for the urban commute and much too bulky to store in the hallway closet. But hey, at this point, we'll take whatever we can get even if it's expected to cost over $100,000 when it ships in 2012.
2012: Martin Jetpack
Finally, we have the gasoline-powered Martin Jetpack, bringing us full circle from the days of the Flying Pie Pan. Unveiled in July 2008, the Martin Jetpack can fly for a duration of 30 minutes to a height above 5,000 feet or a max speed of about 60mph and a max range of 31.5 miles. Unfortunately, "jet" in this jetpack refers to the two jets of air produced by its ducted fans powered by a 200 horsepower V-4 piston engine.
Lead image: Illustration by Zélia, ILOVEGRAPHICS.net; 1928: Anthony 'Buck Rogers Wikipedia; 1945: Flying Nazis Philip Francis Nowlan. Armageddon, HIMMELSTÜRMER, High Plains Reader; 1949: Rocket Man Posteropolis; 1955: Flying Pie Pan Popular Science, June 1955; 1958: "Flying like a bird may be nearer than we think" Popular Mechanics. Dec 1958; 1958: Jump Belts: Popular Science, Dec 1958; 1958: Flying Belt Popular Science, Dec 1958; 1959: Soldier of the Future: AP, New York Times, Aug 1959; Jetpack Reality: Popular Science, Dec 1961; April 20, 1961: First Untethered Flight! Popular Science, Apr 1961; June 8, 1951: First public flight! Both photos by Ed Clark//Time Life Pictures/Getty Images; 1962: Jetpack astronaut: Popular Science, Nov 1962; 1964: Icarus: Popular Science, Nov 1962; 1965: Rocket Chair and Pogo Stick: Thunderbolt Aerosystems; 1965: Bond, James Bond: illustrated 007, Archiv für Filmposter; Bill Suitor, Jetpack Legend: Rocketbelt - Bill Suitor; 1965: Lost in Space; 1966: 'Buck Rogers' Flying belt patented: Popular Science, June 1966; 1968: Buck Rogers flying belt "A large hop closer today" Popular Science, Nov 1969; April 7th, 1969: First 'Jet Belt' flight" Popular Science, Nov 1969; The NASA Years: Wikipedia; Theft, Kidnapping, and Murder: The Rocketbelt Caper by Paul Brown; Juan Manuel Lozano Gallegos: Tecaeromex.com; Yves Rossy: Jetman; 2012 Jetlev: Jetlev-Flyer; 2012 Martin Jetpack: The Martin Jetpack