A historical flyover of sixteen fantastic jetpacks that sent imaginations soaring.
For more than 80 years we’ve been captivated by images of people whisking through the skies, propelled by personal devices strapped to their backs. This is the jetpack. The obsession of authors, artists, and engineers, jetpacks are found throughout decades of movies, TV shows, video games, and occasionally real world stunts. Jetpacks are a cultural touchstone, one that has ignited the imaginations of people everywhere. Over the years, these devices have evolved from fictional novelty to military experiment to daredevil’s plaything. What follows are the highlights of the jetpack’s trajectory over 85-odd years of fanning the flames of personal flight.
The Original Jetpack
Imagined by: Phillip Francis Nowlan, science fiction writer
Design: Anti-gravity belt supplemented with mini rocket
Found in: Armageddon 2419 AD, science fiction novella
The fictional Captain Anthony Rogers finds himself 500 years in the future; a time when Americans wear special “jump belts” containing an antigravity mineral that lets them leap great distances with little effort. A few citizens have even supplemented their packs with small rockets so that they can soar through the air like divers through water. This is the first conception of the jetpack. The story eventually grew into a wildly popular comic, radio show, TV show, and film series featuring the jetpack-wearing hero Buck Rogers. It was this story that seeded countless minds with the idea of jetpack flight.
The Amazing Flying Man
Imagined by: Frank R. Paul, artist
Design: Flight pack and belt
Found in: Amazing Stories, magazine cover illustration
This is the first time a jetpack illustration graced the cover of a magazine. Inspired by Nowlan’s descriptions, the flight pack is made of tubular metal components affixed with leather straps and controlled with a joystick tethered to the wearer’s navel. Three levers attached to the belt panel may provide additional control. An articulated tube at the back of the belt connects to the larger, backpack-like section (perhaps containing fuel) secured with shoulder straps.
Imagined by: Royal Cole, writer; William Lively, writer; Sol Shor, writer
Design: Atom-powered rocket suit
Found in: King of the Rocket Men, 12-chapter movie serial
Rocket Man is the first jetpack-wearing superhero to grace the silver screen. His flight suit consists of a leather jacket secured with a belt. The suit has a front-mounted control panel and two back-mounted jets on either side of a small fuel tank. A bullet-shaped helmet was initially secured into the collar of the jacket but later installments separated the two pieces.
The Real Deal
Imagined by: Thomas Moore, aeronautical engineer
Design: Two jets extending from the shoulders at a 5’ span
Found in: Redstone Arsenal, Huntsville, Alabama
The Jet Vest only took off in a few tethered test flights. It featured chest-mounted hand controls and drew fuel from hydrogen peroxide gas tanks on the ground. It combined the liquid fuel system of a V-2 rocket (the first rockets that reached space) with a Stentor motor to generate a whopping 300 pounds of thrust, enough to lift Moore off the ground. Ostensibly designed for the U. S. military, they decided that the Jet Vest was too far fetched and killed funding.
Imagined by: Arthur Radebaugh, illustrator
Design: Backpack fuel container and jet engine
Found in: Closer Than We Think, newspaper comic
Arthur Radebaugh was an illustrator with a special fancy for the future. His future mail carrier hovers a foot or two off the ground wearing a large metal jet engine in the shape of an ant’s abdomen. Crisscrossing leather straps secure the engine to its user and anchor the matching leather mailbag at his side. A three-buttoned controller is mounted to the front straps for handy maneuverability.
Imagined by: Garry Burdett and Alexander Bohr, engineers
Design: Leather belt with fuel canisters and two small nozzles
Found in: Thiokol Corporation, jet propulsion laboratory
The Jump Belt was the slimmest and most simplistic type of jetpack to be prototyped, deriving thrust through nitrogen expelled by two downward-facing nozzles. Five fuel canisters were secured vertically along the rear of the belt in the small of the wearer’s back, each canister feeding into a tube that ended with the nozzles. The wearer would secure it by stepping into two leather leg loops falling at the upper thigh and then buckling the clasp around the waist. Popular Science reported that the device would enable its wearer the ability to jump to a height of 21 feet or run 30 miles and hour. But there is no evidence it ever did.
It’s Belt, Rocket Belt
Imagined by: Wendell Franklin Moore
Design: Large pack with fuel containers and armatured jets
Made for: Bell Labs, R&D Laboratory
The design of the Rocket Belt moved the nozzles from waist level or lower to the ends of bent armatures just below shoulder height. The controls, rather than being chest-mounted, were put at the ends of two control arms that ran beneath the user’s arms. The “Rocket Belt” was tested publicly in 1960 and would be the base model for popular depictions of jetpacks for decades to come. It made appearances in the James Bond flick Thunderball; episodes of The A Team, Six Million Dollar Man, Gilligan’s Island, and Newhart; and even the opening ceremonies of the 1984 summer Olympics.
Imagined by: Various
Design: Spacesuit with jet backpack
Found in: Space, Made by NASA
The Self-Maneuvering Unit (SMU) combined several military technologies into this “human spaceship” complete with a 10-nozzel jetpack developed for the Air Force. Controls were mounted on a circular panel at the user’s waist. The rectangular pack and bubble helmet make this model decidedly “mod.” Its makers envisioned future astronauts using the pressurized hydrogen peroxide jets to move around their spacecraft for up to four hours and at a distance of several miles. Unfortunately, it was never used.
Imagined by: Wendell Moore and John K. Hulbert
Design: Turbine-powered pack
Found in: Williams Research Corporation; Bell Aerosystems
This pack diverged dramatically from its liquid-fuel predecessors, generating lift through what was then the world’s smallest turbojet engine. The engine pulled in air from the bottom of the pack and expelled it through two massive nozzles on either side of the user’s shoulders. Though measuring only about a foot and a half wide and two feet long, the jet-fueled engine was heavier and more complicated than its predecessor. The Popular Science article announcing the innovation speculated, “maybe someday your ‘second car’ will be a flying belt garaged in the hall closet.”
Imagined by: George Lucas, director; Ralph McQuarrie, artist; Joe Johnston, artist
Design: Alien jetpack with integrated rocket launcher
Found in: Star Wars universe
Boba Fett is a minor Star Wars character introduced in The Empire Strikes Back. Fett’s jetpack is ostensibly made with alien technology but its design drew on existing jetpacks of the day with what appears to be a central engine with fuel cells on either side and waist-level thruster nozzles. Jeremy Bulloch, the actor who played Boba Fett, complained that wearing the heavy jetpack was the worst aspect of filming his role, though he believes that the costume continues to play a part in the character’s surprising popularity.
Imagined by: Hasbro, toy manufacturer
Design: Liquid-fuel jetpack with laser gun controls
Found in: G.I. Joe universe; children’s toy boxes
The Jet Mobile Propulsion Unit (JUMP) is a jetpack for America’s most macho man-doll. Included with a compatible launch pad, the pack features a compact central engine flanked by large nozzles at the waist. A laser blaster draws energy from the pack via a power cord and pulls double duty as the control unit. Blueprints state the jetpack is equipped with a 2-hour fuel supply and can travel as fast as 150mph. Originally sold separately from a figure in 1982, the toy was re-released in 1983 with Grand Slam, the first “laser artillery soldier” in the G.I. Joe cannon.
MMUvin’ On Up
Imagined by: Martin Marietta Aerospace, aerospace company
Design: Space-suit compatible backpack propulsion device
Found in: Space, made by Martin Marietta
The Manned Maneuvering Unit evolved from NASA’s Self-Maneuvering Unit and was used on three space shuttle missions in 1984. Powered by two silver-zinc batteries and propelled through pressurized nitrogen gas. Twenty-four thrusters provided movement and a built-in system of gyros ensured stability and altitude. The MMU weighed 340 pounds on earth but was, of course, weightless in space. The controls were positioned on armrests at the operator’s fingertips and extra power outlets were included to provide energy to ancillary equipment like cameras and monitoring devices. When trying to recover the Solar Maximum Mission satellite, one improvised thrust from an astronaut’s MMU caused the satellite to tumble out of control and nearly brought an abrupt end to its mission. The jetpack was taken out of commission after the Challenger Disaster in favor of tethered spacewalks.
Imagined by: Dave Stevens, artist and writer
Design: Twin metal propulsive jet engines
Found in: The Rocketeer, film released by Walt Disney Pictures
The Rocketeer is a dreamy jetpack-strapped superhero. His device features two small explosive jet engines flanking a central fuel cell. Thrust is controlled using a tethered ignition button but body movement dictated direction and altitude. Created by writer-illustrator Dave Stevens, the character first appeared in a comic from the 1980’s. Walt Disney Pictures released a feature film based on the comics in 1991 and the movie has amassed such a cult following that Disney is contemplating a remake.
Imagined by: Steven S. DeKnight, script writer
Design: Homemade jet backpack
Found in: Buffy The Vampire Slayer, television series
In Season 6 of this iconic television program, members of the evil “Trio” use two small jetpacks while attempting to flee from Vampire Slayer Buffy Summers and her gang of pals. Lightweight and thin, these packs notably lacked conventional fuel tanks, possibly relying on a more efficient, magical energy source. In a reference to one of the earliest fictional jetpack depictions, Buffy laments the escape of one of her nemeses, saying, “Jonathan and Andrew got clinked but Warren pulled a rocketman.”
Imagined by: Yves Rossy, adventurer
Design: Carbon-fiber wing with integrated jetpack
Found in: Stunts, the skies over national monuments
The Jetwing is a 9’ carbon wing with four small Jet-Cat P200 jet engines mounted underneath. The wing can carry its wearer at speeds upwards of 190mph, as high as 12,000ft, and as far as 9.3 miles. With a thrust of less than 200lbs, the pack cannot liftoff unassisted. However, it performs admirably after the user has jumped out of an airplane or helicopter. In the fall of 2013, the Jetwing’s inventor, Yves Rossy, a Swiss pilot and adventurer known as “Jetman,” used the pack to complete nine circuits around Japan’s Mount Fuji.
Imagined by: Glenn Martin, founder of Martin Aircraft
Design: Two gas-fueled ducted fans
Found in: New Zealand, the future
Rather than using jet engine propulsion to produce lift, the Martin Jetpack relies on two ducted fans that operate on the same principle as a helicopter. Controls are mounted MMU-style at the end of two armrests. The pack can fly up to 45 mph to altitudes of 800 feet and for more than 30 minutes. It is being marketed as the world’s first practical jetpack and is slated for public release in 2014.
Got you hooked? Propel yourself into more:
The future of jetpacks
We dig into what the latest jetpack innovation means for the future of personal flight
Before the Jetsons, Arthur Radebaugh Illustrated the Future
The Smithsonian discusses other fabulous predictions from this forward thinking cartoonist
The MMU User’s Guide (PDF)
Prepare for vintage spacewalks by reviewing this handy manual