Jammin’ In Jetpacks
Keep your eyes to the skies. This retro-futurist dream is about to take off.
An unmanned jetpack zooms and tilts through a cloudless sky, the force of its airstream flattening the uncut grass below like a giant hairdryer blasting the earth’s green locks. It moves in an exhilarating rush across the field, hovering perhaps 20 feet above the ground, looking sturdy and sky-worthy before landing. This is a test flight for the newest iteration of the Martin Jetpack, slated for release this year as the first commercially available jetpack for personal use.
Retro-futurists rejoice! We are one step closer to fulfilling the dreams of baby boomers everywhere: the fantasy of blasting off like Buck Rogers or zipping through the skies like George Jetson. The idea of the personal jetpack has been taunting us since it first appeared in sci-fi pulps of the late 1920s and now, it has never been closer to reality. This device has the potential to manifest an entire generation’s fantasies, even if the Martin’s $150,000 price tag keeps it out of the reach of the average aspiring airman.
Granted, the early jetpack adopters will probably be attention-seeking celebrities or lavishly compensated CEOs with the roof space to install a helipad. But emergency responders and news agencies will also see the utility in having a bird’s eye view of events, replacing their fleet of helicopters with a few nimble jetpacks, the better to hover near outdoor happenings. With time, there will be a celebrity styling craze for windblown hair and a new market for jetpack accessories like bejeweled cup holders and aviation goggles that fit over one’s Google Glass.
But if Moore’s Law is as applicable to personal jetpacks as it is to personal electronics then the Martin Jetpack still holds hope for us plebes to get our moment in the sky. Once jetpacks become commercially viable—even with a six-figure price tag—the increased resources will fund a cascade of technological innovations to make the packs cheaper and cheaper to produce. In just another decade or two, jetpacks might indeed be the motorcycle of the skies.
That’s when things could really get interesting. Imagine if the craze for urban biking was replaced by an equal passion for jetpack flying. Politicians will invoke the power of the jetpack lobby as the roads in urban centers are transformed into pedestrian parks dotted with landing and refueling stations. New apartment buildings will be constructed to accommodate jetpack parking on any floor. And we’ll all have the opportunity to experience the thrill that test pilot James Bowker felt on his first flight, a “mixture of scary and just awesome.”
Today, thoughts of air travel are more likely to induce visions of TSA scans, checked luggage fees, and a dearth of legroom rather than soaring exhilaration. Yet our aspirations for personal jetpack flight remain. In the 1950’s and 60’s, the first craze for jetpacks expressed an entire culture’s aspiration to reach new technological and social heights. But when the whining futurist of today laments, “Where is my jetpack?” what they’re really saying is Why haven’t we done more? Why haven’t I done more? It is the desire to be special, to ascend beyond our peers and those who came before us with the unimaginable freedom of Icarus in that first mythic human flight.
But even if the jetpack becomes commonplace, teenagers will never forego their driver’s licenses in favor of getting the keys to the family jetpack. You can’t take a date to prom or do a cross-country road trip by jetpack. In this era of connectivity, the invention’s unfortunate flaw is that jetpacks are—by definition—built for one. And if you can’t share the experience, it might not end up taking off in the way we imagine.