Boomers Wondered, “Where’s My Jet Pack?”

As the world of science touched our lives during the Space Race, a vision of personal flight long imagined in science fiction entered the scene as a real possibility: the jet pack, or more accurately, the rocket pack, since it did not have a jet-propelled engine. A rocket pack was a device worn by an individual that contained fuel tanks and control mechanisms to propel the figure, in science fiction, across the skies.

The first rocket pack was invented by a Russian inventor, Aleksandr Andreyev, in 1919. He imagined a liquid fuel mix of methane and oxygen as his propellent, and affixed wings that were three feet long to the back of the device for stability in flight. A patent was issued to him years later, but his device was never built.

The idea was constantly cropping up through the years. The Nazis tested versions of flying platforms during WWII, but their plans fortunately did not result in operational devices. Various companies tested versions of rocket packs in the 1950s, and the U.S. Army was interested in possible military uses for reconnaissance, passing over mine fields, crossing rivers, ascending steep inclines, etc. The government contracted Aerojet General to develop and test a rocket pack, which the Army dubbed a Small Rocket Lift Device (SRLD). In 1960, the Army discovered that Bell Aerosystems was testing a rocket pack (which they called a rocket belt), and shifted their funding over to them. Bell’s version used a propellent made of a hydrogen peroxide mixed with a bit of nitrogen.

Testing was well underway between 1960 and 1965, first with trained test pilots, then, at the Army’s suggestion, by an untrained pilot. Bill Suitor, age 19 at the time, was hired to join the team of pilots. Between 1965 and 1969, the team executed 3,000 flights with a perfect safety record. While successfully getting its pilots airborne, the duration of each flight maxed out at 21 seconds by the mid-60s. Short flight duration coupled with expensive engineering and high fuel costs caused the Army to scrap its program. Bell continued to demonstrate the device at air shows and state fairs, so it piqued the imagination of many boomers along the way.

Boomers had watched episodes of Rocketman on TV and already wanted to fly with their own rocket pack. As if rocket pack fever wasn’t enough, James Bond entered the mix in the opening sequence of Thunderball (1965). Our man 007 made his getaway courtesy of a Bell Aerospace rocket belt. His stunt double was none other than Bill Suitor.

Mister Boomer recalls seeing a Glad garbage bag commercial on TV in the 1960s where the Man from Glad flies in with a rocket pack to rescue the woman struggling with an inferior trash bag. Despite his memory, he was unable to verify this memory online.

Today the rocket pack is alive and well, with several companies producing versions with various forms of propellant, and individual inventors have created their own devices with mixed results. Two practical applications did arise from the rocket pack idea, though: today astronauts use a similar device for space walks. The NASA device is a direct descendant of the Bell rocket belt. Enterprising inventors realized that if they could figure our a way to keep a fuel supply coming to the belt, fly time could be greatly enhanced. They found a way to pump water to the propulsion unit, and the water jet pack was invented. These devices propel a person, tethered to to the pump unit, above and around a body of water. Variations on the device include one that resembles a skateboard, and others that act like individual “jet shoes.” A recreational rental market has cropped up in several tourist-centric locations around the globe.

Did you want a jet pack, boomers?

Mister Boomer Tips His Hat to Elon Musk & SpaceX

When carmaker and space entrepreneur Elon Musk was born in 1971, the Space Race was long over; the U.S. was declared the underdog victor when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon in July of 1969. Interest in manned missions to space peaked around that time, but support for continuing manned space exploration was bolstered by the introduction of the first Space Shuttle in 1976. Appropriately christened “Enterprise,” it was named after the boomer-favorite spaceship on the TV show, Star Trek. For the first time, boomers could see a spaceship that could fly into orbit and land back on Earth, ready for another flight.

Deep budget cuts to the Space Program and a public that no longer stopped whatever they were doing to watch rocket launches — like we did during the 1960s — made it difficult to maintain an ambitious program to “boldly go where no one has gone before.” When the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded shortly after take-off in January 1986, it became evident that progress from here on out was going to be slow and deliberate.

The International Space Station missions (1998 to present) kept our toes in the water, but many boomers, like Mister Boomer, longed for the thrill of big missions where brave men and women zipped across the universe the way we had seen in the TV shows and movies of our youth. Fast forward to February 6, 2018, when Elon Musk’s SpaceX team launched the Heavy Falcon rocket from the same Cape Canaveral launchpad that had propelled NASA astronauts to the moon, rekindling the hopes and imaginations of the Boomer Generation who sat on the edge of their seats while watching the space launches, from the earliest manned Mercury missions that began in 1961 to landing on the moon, as President Kennedy had challenged, “before the end of the decade.” People had camped out for two days to watch the Heavy Falcon launch along the same highway where boomers and their families had watched the Apollo launches. This SpaceX three-booster system doubles the liftoff capacity of what current rockets can muster, expanding the payload possibilities for future missions.

To, as our sixties lingo would put it, blow our minds even more, the three Heavy Falcon booster rockets were not designed to fall off into the ocean, never to be used again. No, Musk’s company has spent the past decade engineering the booster rockets so that they land safely on Earth and are able to be refueled and used again. The two side boosters did just that, landing back at Cape Canaveral in a synchronized event that looked like something from a Buck Rogers episode. The largest booster, the center rocket, was supposed to land on a drone ship platform in the Atlantic ocean, but missed it by 100 meters. Preliminary reports say the rocket didn’t have enough remaining fuel to execute the landing maneuver.

As if that wasn’t enough, Mr. Musk had another surprise for us. The spacecraft that was launched by the Heavy Falcon boosters was intended to head for an orbit around Mars. When the nose cone of the craft opened, it revealed a red convertible Tesla Roadster with a mannequin in a spacesuit behind the wheel. As strains of David Bowie’s Life on Mars emanated from the car’s sound system, the mannequin — dubbed “Starman” by Musk — had his left arm resting on the car window while the right hand “steered” through space. The car’s electronic readout screen posted the message, “Don’t Panic,” and a copy of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy was in the glove compartment. The latest reports say that Starman will miss his orbit trajectory for Mars, and is headed toward the Asteroid Belt. Sweet boomer dreams are made of this!

One week after the incredible SpaceX test of the Heavy Falcon rockets comes news that our government is poised to end funding of the International Space Station in 2024. Reports indicate a desire of the current Administration to turn it over to private industry. While boomers like Mister B might question the wisdom of such a decision, one can only hope that if privatization is the future of space exploration, the International Space Station won’t become a floating hotel with a certain president’s name on it, but rather placed in the hands of visionaries like Elon Musk. Think of the possibilities of building interplanetary craft in space instead of engineering bigger rockets to send the immense size and fuel supply that will be necessary for such travel directly from Earth. While you’re at it, Mister Musk, could you please begin the work on a Warp Drive, and oh, if we had a way to beam up to the Station, that would be super! To infinity and beyond!

What did you think of the SpaceX test launch, boomers? Did it remind you of the excitement we felt in the early days of the Space Program?