For fans of science fiction, growing up during the Great Depression of the 1930s was a fertile time of wonder and futuristic dreaming. For young readers of the famous Buck Rogers pulp-fiction serials and comic strips, the future was full of all kinds of cool transportation gizmos - from ultra-fast stratospheric airships to self-propelled rocket belts for personal use. These wild, sci-fi ideas made such an impression on one young fan, named Wendell Moore, that it inspired him to pursue an engineering career in the aerospace industry.
Moore worked for the Bell Aircraft Company of Niagara Falls, N.Y., and was involved with the development of Bell's famous post-World War II experimental rocketplanes-the X-1 and X-1a. The Bell rocketplanes were pioneering aircraft and they looked more like something out of a Buck Rogers comic strip than something the aviation industry of the late 1940s could have fabricated.
Ironically, U.S. Air Force test pilot Chuck Yeager, who broke the "sound barrier" in a Bell X-1 rocket plane in 1947, became most famous during the 1980s when writer Tom Wolf penned his award-winning book, "The Right Stuff".
Years after Yeager's achievement, the U.S. Army expressed interest in moving soldiers quickly on the battlefield. That's when Wendell Moore stepped up to see if he could help; he fell back on a childhood dream - flying through the air in a Buck Rogers' rocket belt. Moore's creation of the rocket belt became better known as the jet belt.
This daring flying device and its variants are pop cultural icons. The jet belt has made appearances in everything from the Super Bowl and "Lost in Space" to a James Bond movie and a Canadian Club whisky advertising campaign.
Moore's original jet belt concept began its gestation during the late 1950s complete with a small rocket engine and fire extinguisher-sized tanks of nitrogen and hydrogen-peroxide propellants. The fuel tanks, combustion chamber, jet (rocket) nozzles, and hand controls were all incorporated into a neat package that could be worn on the back of its human pilot, like a knapsack. The pilot, wearing a nifty crash helmet and fire-retardant jumpsuit, secured the heavy pack on his back using waist and leg belts.
The rocket belt would enable the user to take off, hover, and jump over objects using the limited thrust of the backpack's small rocket thrusters. The idea sounded ideal for the military - what better way for soldiers on a battlefield to leap over enemy lines or fly over obstacles such as tanks and troop trucks?
Moore was successful in building a workable rocket belt by 1961. In fact, he was the belt's first test pilot. He attempted several tethered flights in a large hanger at Bell's Niagara Falls campus. But after falling from a height of 10 feet above the hangar floor when his jet belt failed, Moore was removed by Bell executives as the pack's test pilot.
The public reaction to Moore's jet belt was phenomenal during the early 1960s. But it created a false impression - goaded on by eager news reporters - that the thing was easy to fly and would soon be seen in every day use. The Army soured on the idea when it realized how limited the device was as a military flying machine. A helicopter-like autorating rotorcraft, the gyroplane, was seen as a better one-person device to move individual soldiers on the battlefield although that idea ultimately failed, too.
Moore's amazing jet belt was cursed with limited fuel supply and limited flight range; these limitations are what ultimately doomed the jetpack beyond its use as a mere movie or advertising novelty. There wasn't much you could do, or places to go, with only 21-seconds of flight time.
However, Moore's innovative reaction controls used on the jet belt would serve a far greater purpose - they became the basis for the important reaction controls employed on all American manned spacecraft. These little rockets were first used aboard the joint Air Force and NASA X-15 aerospace plane (which flew into lower suborbital space), and later on the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo spacecraft. Even today's space shuttles sport Wendell Moore's invention-the small reaction-gas thrusters used to maneuver in the airless environment of space.
Lou Varricchio, M.Sc., is a former NASA science writer. He is the NASA/JPL "solar system ambassador" in Vermont.