The World’s First Jetpack Was Built In The 1950s

“Science does not know its debt to imagination.” —Ralph Waldo Emerson

In A Nutshell

During the 1950s and 1960s, researchers at Bell Aerosystems developed the first jetpack, named the Bell Rocket Belt. It was capable of flying to a height of 10 meters (33 ft), with a flight duration of 21 seconds. It was almost purchased by the US Army, but the project was scrapped because of the disappointing statistics.

The Whole Bushel

In 1953, Wendell F. Moore, a researcher at Bell Aerosystems, began working on a prototype of a rocket pack. Experiments on his invention began a few years later, using compressed nitrogen forced out of two steel tubes as thrust. In the beginning, they weren’t so much flying as hopping with style, but by 1958 they were able to fly at a height of 5 meters (16 ft) for up to three minutes. This attracted the attention of the US Army, which was looking for a Small Rocket Lift Device, or SRLD, capable of lifting soldiers over obstacles. In 1959, they contracted Bell Aerosystems to develop such a device for them, utilizing the research already completed by Moore. In total, the US Army paid Bell Aerosystems $150,000 for the project.

The details of the prototype were changed when the US Army contract was signed. For starters, the fuel was changed to hydrogen peroxide because it required no combustion and was deemed to be safer. The first flight tests were all personally performed by Moore and were accompanied by a tether attached to the ground, serving as a restraint in case the rocket pack malfunctioned. In a test flight on February 17, 1961, the 125-pound prototype failed, shooting off to the right and breaking the tether. It finally fell from a height of 2.5 meters (8.2 ft), shattering one of Moore’s kneecaps, causing such injury that he was never able to fly again. His understudy, engineer Harold Graham, performed all of the subsequent flights. On April 20, 1961, just outside of Niagara Falls Airport, the first tether-free flight was performed, reaching a height of 1.2 meters (4 feet) and lasting a total of 13 seconds. The maximum speed Graham attained was 10 kph (6.2 mph) with a flight distance of 33 meters (108 ft). Another 28 test flights were conducted so the flying technique could be mastered before the rocket pack was shown publicly.

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At the Fort Eustis military base on June 8, 1961, the rocket pack was shown publicly for the first time, in front of several hundred US Army officers. Many more public demonstrations were conducted, with a personal exhibition for President John F. Kennedy taking place on October 11, 1961, where Graham flew over a stream and landed next to him. All of the test flights were well received, but the US Army declined to pay for any more research because the flight distances and times were considered inadequate for what they needed. The rocket pack was modified and almost used by NASA for their Apollo 11 mission to the moon, serving as a backup in case the lunar module failed. But it was scrapped in favor of a lunar rover because space was limited. After that, research at Bell Aerosystems was discontinued.

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