Given that the image of a man rocketing off via his backpack has become culturally ingrained, many of us at some time or other have mused about the jetpack and wondered why we don’t all have one. For me, this question became particularly pressing after I saw the most inspiring use of a jetpack ever recorded, flown by one George Michael Bluth, who, believing it to be a gift from his father, used the jetpack to fight against a giant mole.
The character Rocket Man first appeared in 1949 and began an impressive screen career—he starred in four movies and one TV show. He wears an “atomic powered rocket flying suit” in order to stop his nemesis, Dr. Vulcan, from conquering the world. Now I’m picturing Spock wearing a jetpack, and am even sadder that they’re not available.
Since then, the jet pack has made an appearance in many other science fiction books, comics, movies and television shows, such as Buck Rogers (1930s) and the Rocketeer, whose comic first appeared in 1982. Disney released the Rocketeer movie in 1991. And, of course, there’s the Jetsons—even the most domesticated and lame space folk had jetpacks.
Imagine how easy it would be to get to school or work with a jetpack. No commuter lanes, no search for parking, no meters. I fantasize about how much better traffic in Boston would be. That is, unless people’s driving habits transferred directly into their flight patterns. Then they’d have to invent jetpacks with horns. And tear gas. In time, jetpacks would of course come in various brands, styles, and colors—surely, Nike would have jetpacks with LCD swooshes. Converse could make the ironic hipster jetpacks. We could have all-black, goth jetpacks, or rainbow-colored LGBT-friendly packs. Packs with the insignia of your favorite NHL, NFL, or NBA team, packs with your school or company’s logo, packs with the family crest emblazoned on them. Waterproof jetpacks, jet packs with visors, streamers, cup holders. A jetpack could become much more than a jetpack.
As it turns out, jetpacks do exist.
The Germans invented the first prototype, wearable pulse jet tubes, in World War II. It was called the “Himmelsturmer,” which means heaven stormer, and is probably more awesome than the actual jetpack.
In 1959, Aerojet General Corporation invented the Aeropack. Then, Bell Aerosystems developed the Bell Rocket Belt, which ran on hydrogen peroxide. Pilots could control the thrust by controlling the direction of two nozzles that blasted out steam created from a combination of nitrogen and hydrogen peroxide. The Rocket Belt could only fly for 20 seconds. When Bell Aerosystems tried again in the 1990s to improve the design, they built a much sounder machine but could only reach a fly time of 30 seconds.
Stuntman Eric Scott set the Guinness World Record for the fastest man in a jetpack (the competition for this category was fierce) in May, 2009, when he reached 68 mph. He also flew across the Royal Gorge Canyon in 21 seconds. His pack, appropriately named “Go Fast,” runs on hydrogen peroxide, which is safe (ie, not likely to blow up while on your back), but the fly times are quite short. The “Go Fast” pack can carry enough fuel for a 30-second trip. According to the website, they’re only “sold to qualified individuals that have undergone extensive training.”
The Martin Aircraft Company, based in New Zealand, has developed a jetpack that has a gasoline engine, which allows it to stay in the air upwards of 30 minutes and reach speeds of over 60 miles per hour. In May of 2001, the Martin jet pack shot to an altitude of 5,000 feet, providing fodder for the fantasies of geeks the world over. The Martin Aircraft Company hopes to have the product ready for “key customers” in the next 18 months. According to their website, they will sell the packs to private individuals after test runs and refinement. You can reserve a jetpack, though, for whenever they eventually release them. All you have to do to “fly the dream” is plunk down a $3,500 deposit and be ready to fork over $97,000 more when the time comes.
In the midst of economic turmoil, this gives us an inspiring goal: instead of lowering the price of the jetpack, we need to rehabilitate the markets until the purchase of a jetpack is merely a drop in the bucket for most folks, until we’re launched, for thirty seconds at a time, headlong into the brilliant future.