While watching Thunderball recently, I was reminded of how James Bond escapes from a funeral on a wicked-cool jetpack (or rather, a jetpack that was wicked-cool in 1965). This, in turn, reminded me of all the fantastic uses of jetpacks over the years – from the original King of the Rocket Men serial from 1949 to the Commando Cody shorts from the 50s to Joe Johnston’s The Rocketeer in 1990 and even Iron Man’s portable propulsion devices.
Like the flying car from The Jetsons, the jetpack seems forever out of reach for our everyday use, but it’d be such a brilliant tool to have. This got me thinking… where are the jetpacks we were promised?
The Answer: They’re already here, but they don’t work the same way.
In the real world, jetpacks have been around for decades. In fact, the famous device seen in Thunderball was actually an operating jetpack known as the Bell Rocket Belt manufactured by Tecnologia Aeroespacial Mexicana (TAM). It was piloted by Gordon Yaeger and Bill Suitor for the filming of the movie.
The Russians developed a jetpack as early as 1919, but it was never put into full production. In the 1950s, they used propellants like compressed nitrogen, but eventually the standard choice was hydrogen peroxide with a catalyst, which can rapidly decompose into steam and oxygen gases.
Over the decades, several companies (including TAM, Powerhouse Productions Rocketbelt, and Jetpack International) have developed various working models, mostly using the hydrogen peroxide fuel system. However, this fuel source has an extremely short (under a minute) flight time and has not been used for much more than a novelty at public events.
Recently, Martin Jetpack announced that it had manufactured the first real-world working jetpack with a traditional petroleum-based fuel, faster speeds (up to 30 miles per hour cruising) and longer flight times (approximately 30 minutes) that could be used by first responders in police missions and rescue operations.
They also have them… in space!
The astronaut propulsion unit, most popularly seen in movies like Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, has been used by NASA on space missions since the 1960s. These personal propulsion systems have been essential in space walks, giving astronauts the ability to maneuver outside of the space module for missions that last an average of six hours. While the packs only contain enough fuel for five or six minutes of continuous propulsion, a constant burn is not necessary. Because astronauts in space do not need to overcome the force of gravity or the resistance of air friction, they only need short bursts to move where they need to go.
Conversely, water-power jetpacks have become a popular tourist activity, comparable to the popularity of parasailing in the 1990s. Fans of Karl Pilkington may have seen him attempt to use one in the first episode of the third season of An Idiot Abroad.
Of course, water-powered jet packs are just a novelty for tourists and aren’t exactly something you can use to fight crime with as the Rocketeer and Iron Man do. (Unless you’re fighting Jason Momoa as Aquaman, and even then, you’d most likely get your ass kicked anyway.)
So, if the technology is available, what’s the hold up?
Seriously, What’s The Hold Up?
Unfortunately, it’s going to be a while before the Martin Jetpack is available for the marketplace. When it is, the price tag for these monsters will likely be between $100,000 and $200,000, putting your expensive toy in Ferrari territory. Even for the traditional hydrogen peroxide-fueled models, you’re looking at $155,000 to $250,000 for 30 seconds of flying time.
There are other factors to consider. In order to hold enough fuel, the Martin Jetpack is far bulkier than what the Rocketeer wears, making it look more like a small personal jet with no fuselage. The cumbersome nature and maneuverability of the design has been overcome to a certain degree, but it’s still far larger and less controllable than a science fiction back pack.
Also, if these even hit the general public, there will be legal issues to iron out, including speed and collisions. These will likely involve the Federal Aviation Administration, which will soon control and regulate where, when, and how fast you can travel with the jetpack you borrow from Bond.