Why Haven’t Jetpacks Happened Yet?

Of all the old-time predictions for the future that we thought we’d see by now, the personal flying device is one that is just not happening on a wide scale. And it’s a damn shame.

Comic books going back as far 1928’s Amazing Stories depicted not one, but two fictional heroes flying around defeating bad guys from above, saving cats from trees, and so forth. One of them, Richard Seaton, used a Tesla coil for power and simple hand gestures to steer. The other, the indomitable Buck Rogers of 25th Century fame, made his debut using a jetpack to negotiate a devastated Earth 500 years into the future.

A 1960 U.S. Army Jetpack design. Image: Popular Mechanics

A 1960 U.S. Army Jetpack design.
Image: Popular Mechanics

Readers of all ages at the time hoped that we wouldn’t have to wait that long to make jetpacks a reality. Inventors worked on various real-life prototypes during and after World War II, motivated mostly by making a device that had practical military application. After all, nothing says Cold War Bad-Ass better than a crack outfit of American soldiers flying over a battlefield on jetpacks to waste some Commies invaders.

In the 1950s, Wendell Moore of Bell Aerosystems developed a “Small Rocket Lift Device” that was essentially a rocket belt. The system was patented in 1962, but it wasn’t a great leap forward for personal rocketry. The operator could only stay aloft for about 20 seconds and the fuel burned quickly, so there was no chance of achieving great height, distance, or speed.

Fictional use of rocket belts moved forward though. James Bond, Lost in Space, even Gilligan’s Island made use of rocket belts and kept the dream of personal rocketry alive. In real life, the most spectacular use of a rocket belt during the last 50 years probably took place at the 1984 Summer Olympics opening ceremony, when Bill Suitor (Sean Connery’s jetpack stunt double in 1965), made a short flight to the delight of spectators.

Bill Suitor's flight at the 1984 L.A. Olympics was a short-lived spectacle. Image: Getty Images

Bill Suitor’s flight at the 1984 L.A. Olympics was a short-lived spectacle.
Image: Getty Images

But still we waited for the day when you could go to the local jetpack dealership, and pick up your personal rocket in the color of your choice. And despite advances in so many other technologies, we did not reach a time when people shuttled across the sky to and from work and the market.

It hasn’t been until recently that the dream of jetpack usage approaches a possibility. A June 7, 2016 story in the Wall Street Journal revealed the exploits of some daring millionaire adventurers who are trying to make jetpacks a 21st century reality. But their work has not been cheap or free from serious injury.

There are some major hurdles keeping jetpacks from going mainstream. They are prohibitively expensive to produce on a mass scale, there is yet to be discovered a power source to keep them aloft for meaningful periods of time, and they are hard to steer and use. In other words, jetpacks remain toys for rich daredevils.

But technological success and hope go hand in hand. Before we had DVD players, the first VCRs were as big as suitcases. Before the iPod Nano, carrying portable music on the Sony Walkman was like having a paperback novel clipped to your belt. And the first home computers, which weighed as much as 25 pounds, only held about 100K of memory. Advancements can be made, and maybe one day before too long, we can all have a flying car in our garage, and a jetpack in our coat closet.