Ever since Buck Rogers comics of the 1930s popularized the notion of a personal flying machine-variously referred to as a "rocket belt" or "jetpack"-we have sought to propel ourselves into the air with such a device.Things actually looked good in the 1950s and 1960s when the engineer Wendell Moore and his team at the Bell Aerospace laboratories in upstate New York parlayed extreme diligence, a distinct lack of concern for bodily harm, and the occasional government check (including $30 million in 1967) into a crude but working prototype.The first untethered test of the machine took place on April 20, 1961. On that day, a young pilot named Harold Graham strapped on the 140-pound, hydrogen-peroxide-fueled rocket belt and flew for 13 seconds, traveling 112 feet-eight fewer than the Wright brothers on their maiden voyage. Not a bad start. Over the next several years, Moore honed his rocket-belt technology and conducted hundreds of test flights and demonstrations, primarily for military and NASA officials still keen on seeing the machine's potential realized.But after Moore died of a heart attack, in 1969, Bell's intellectual property was bought by a competing company that subsequently used it to develop the Tomahawk missile. At its best, mostly due to the limitations on the amount of fuel the machine could carry, Bell's rocket belt flew for 21 seconds at speeds up to 60 miles per hour.The dream languished, but never died. In 2006, the Niagara Aerospace Museum in Niagara, New York, hosted the first-ever International Rocketbelt Convention. Roughly 200 amateur builders, engineers, journalists, enthusiasts, tinkerers, and the just plain curious came from as far away as Australia for a weekend of lectures, memories, and, especially, demonstration flights.
In attendance was Will Breaden-Madden. It's guys like Breaden-Madden who hold the jetpacks's future in their hands. A theoretical physics student at The Queen's University of Belfast, Ireland, Breaden-Madden imagines a device that would run on a combination of diesel and jet fuels. He hopes to solve the flight-length dilemma by using jet engines instead of rockets, which would allow for airborne missions of up to 15 minutes.If the technology could be developed to the point Breaden-Madden describes, the practical applications for everyone from Marines to local fire departments and EMS units to the average cubicle-jockey would be incredible. One dramatic irony for contemporary jetpack builders is this: Security concerns after September 11 made it much more difficult for them to advance their work-the fuel-transportation issues alone have stalled many projects-but it is exactly tragedies such as 9/11 that this machine could ameliorate. What if, one wonders, echoing 80 years of dreams, everyone had a jetpack?During his presentation at the convention, Bill Suitor-who chalked up more than 1,200 test flights and demonstrations in his career-said a working jetpack could eventually be mass-produced for about $15,000, though the initial development of a viable engine might cost closer to $1 million. "So if anyone here knows Bill Gates," Suitor joked, "Call him up. Get him to write a check for a million dollars."It's a good thought, but rather than Gates, I might call on his billionaire buddies Paul Allen and Richard Branson. Both Allen and Branson have contributed heavily to the space-tourism and space-entrepreneurship movements. Or I might call on Budget Suites' owner Robert Bigelow, who has invested $500 million in building-wait for it-an inflatable space hotel.So how about it, Mssrs. Allen, Branson, and Bigelow? Why keep futzing with daffy ideas about blow-up space motels when you can make history here on Earth? For a fraction of the investment, you could really change the world. Because apparently the future is, once again, now. Bill Suitor quotes his mentor Wendell Moore, who once said about jetpacks: "It's an idea that's fifty years ahead of its time." Mr. Suitor then adds, "Well, it's been forty-nine years."Top Image: Max "Bunny" Sparber has been puttering around on his personal jetpack since early 2008, touring famous locales in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and San Francisco-but mostly Minnesota. Why a jetpack? In his own words, "There is no better way to be a tourist than by gently floating by the world's many treasures and mysteries." His personal jetpack photographer Courtney Mault was there at every stop to document his journey for all posterity. Next stop: Omaha. See more of his continuing travels on flickr or read his jetpack memoirs at sparberfans.blogspot.com.