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Written by: J.B. Kalin
Written on: August 7th, 2012
Tags: aerospace engineering, mechanical engineering, physics, transportation, lifestyle
Thumbnail by: Wiki Commons/Wiki Commons
About the Author
J.B. Kalin is proud to be a native of Sioux City, Iowa. As an incoming junior in Viterbi, he is majoring in Mechanical Engineering. J.B. currently serves as president of the Zeta Beta Tau Fraternity where he was the first sophomore elected in chapter history. He enjoys playing basketball, supporting USC football, and spending time with family and friends.
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Volume XIV Issue III > Mommy, I Want a Jetpack
Since the 1920s, science fiction has glamorized the jetpack as futuristic technology. After almost one hundred years and only moderate levels of success, people today are left wondering if the jetpack will ever become a reality. By exploring its origins and analyzing recurring design flaws, one can understand the jetpack’s slow development. The success of the Bell Rocket Belt, a low-power rocket propulsion device, initially captured the world’s attention but eventually reached its physical limitations. Recent attempts to create a sustainable jetpack have resulted in a variety of approaches, including a jet engine, water pressure, and ducted fans. Each prototype’s accomplishments and failures are referenced in newspaper articles, scientific journals, and engineering resources. Time and time again, the promise of the jetpack is ultimately overshadowed by its continuous, predictable disappointment.

Introduction

Wiki Commons/Wiki Commons
Figure 1: Jetpacks have been popularized by the entertainment industry such as the movie Iron Man.
It should be here by now. Advances in technology manifested in the form of touch screens, voice recognition, and holograms were once just dreams within the realm of science fiction not too long ago. Just a century ago, space travel was considered unfathomable, a concept strictly restricted to comic books and movies. However, forty years ago, something happened that epitomized the huge leap of progress that technology the world has made over the years: we sent a man to the moon. While this feat of engineering is mind boggling, the development of the jetpack pales in comparison. Amidst the whirlwind of breakthrough technologies, the advancement of the jetpack has been relatively stagnant. Although its purpose may not be as tangible as some of the aforementioned inventions, if perfected, the jetpack could have numerous applications transportation, recreation, and in the military. As inventors attempt to engineer personal flying machines, the jetpack’s history resembles that of the airplane—only without the Wright brothers. Despite some modest progress, nothing has embodied the sustained, unrestricted flight of characters such as Star Wars’ Boba Fett or Iron Man (see Fig. 1).
A closer examination of the jetpack’s development reveals that it has long been hindered by certain design challenges that still trouble engineers today. Even the most elaborate, exclusive, and expensive models can't quite match the ideal vision conceived by science fiction. Numerous prototypes have emerged but none efficient enough to be released to the public. Its sputtering history and modern designs reveal why the conception of the jetpack has never overcome challenges of duration, cost, and mobility.

History

Not until a quarter through the 20th century did the mere idea of a jetpack reach the public eye. In 1928, a science fiction magazine called Amazing Stories published a story about a veteran World War I pilot named Captain Anthony Rogers. Known as “Buck”, the protagonist used a compact jet engine on his back to fly around and fight crime in the future (see Fig. 2). Buck Rogers quickly gained popularity and eventually became a prominent comic series, television show, and movie. By the 1930s, fiction was on the verge of reality when a Russian man named A. Andreev patented an oxygen and methane-fueled flying device. Complete with three-foot wings, a motor would be worn to produce enough power for liftoff. Mark Wells, a research engineer who once worked for NASA and the US military, called Andreev’s contraption “the first device of its kind that had any engineering detail at all”. However, the design was never actually tested [1].
Paul/Wiki Commons
Figure 2: Buck Rogers fighting crime with his jetpack. Another example of the prevalence of jetpacks in the media.
Also referred to as the “rocket pack”, “rocket belt”, or “jet vest”, the jetpack reached a milestone in the late 1940s when engineers at a military base in Alabama began researching rockets that could lift a person and allow him or her to land safely upright. In 1959, the US Army contracted Bell Aerosystems to create a “small rocket lift device” for “light mobility systems missions”. The machine utilized motorcycle-type rotating grips for throttle and was powered by hydrogen peroxide. Eventually called the Bell Rocket Belt, its breakthrough came in 1961 when pilot Harold Graham flew for thirteen seconds [2, 3].
During the mid-60s, the Bell Rocket Belt gained significant exposure as Sean Connery wore one in his blockbuster James Bond film, Thunderball (1965) [3]. Some organizations and individuals continued to spend time and money on its research, including Bill Suitor, who did stunt work as James Bond. Suitor eventually became known for perhaps the most memorable jetpack flight in history, when he flew the rocket belt for seventeen seconds inside the LA Coliseum at the opening ceremonies of the 1984 Olympics. Two and a half billion television viewers from around the globe watched him soar across the field. It appeared that the jetpack had finally arrived, with the Bell Rocket Belt as the primary design [1].