Rocketbelts: High Time For New Technology

Rocketbelts: High Time For New Technology
Rocketwoman, Jodi Michaelson has high-flying plans and has years of involvement in the world of rocket powered vehicles. Image (Image credit: Ky Michaelson)

Let'sface it. Soaring through the sky in Superman-like style would be a Cloud9-rated experience. Imagine propelling yourself from point-to-point viabackpacking rocket power.

Fora group of test pilots, riding rocketbelt hardware is a trip down memory lane--backto the late 1950's and bounding forward into the 1960's.

Backthen, a working jetpack was designed and built by Bell Aerospace--now TextronSystems--and was originally designed and partially funded as prototype equipmentfor the U.S. Army. The Bell rocketbelt worked by releasing high-pressure nitrogen gas throughnozzles. The pack, developed by Bell engineer Wendell Moore, could propel aperson into the air for 20 seconds. The belt and one of the firm's test pilots,Bill Suitor, toured the world in the late 1960s, but corporate-backing of the apparatuseventually waned.

Movie-goersmight recall seeing a working jetpack in the 1965 James Bond film, Thunderball. Then there wasthat 1991 movie, The Rocketeer, where the hero blasts about using aportable rocket backpack to stay one hop ahead of a technology-hungry Nazis.

Nextmonth, for the first time in public, members of the original Bell Aerospacerocketbelt team are meeting modern day rocketbelt engineers, builders, andpilots from around the world--enthusiasts that are keen on keeping the dreamalive and high-flying.

Preserving the legacy

ARocketbelt Convention is being held September 23-24 at the Niagara Aerospace Museum in Niagara Falls, New York, culminating in anall-up demonstration flight. The program is sponsored by Jet P.I./GoFastenergydrinks.

"Theconvention will be a unique, one of a kind, never seen before event," saidconvention co-organizer, Peter Gijsberts of Nuenen, the Netherlands and head of theAirwalker Society that has preserved the legacy and the historical data of rocketbelt flights.

"We'llhave Bell test pilots, theoriginal rocketbelts, modern rocketbelts and the pilots, memorabilia,lecturers, and, of course, a real rocketbelt demonstration," Gijsberts told

Whyall the fanfare?

"I think the desire to fly is intrinsic, timeless, anduniversal," said Kathleen Lennon Clough, co-organizer of the rocketbeltconvention. She is the daughter of Tom Lennon, Bell's seniorphotographer and cinematographer back then who not only chronicled therocketbelt's development but flew the device too.

"How powerful would I feel if I could quickly rescue someonewho was in danger," Clough said, "or get supplies to where they were needed intime? Who doesn't want to be a super-hero?"

NASA interest

There was a time when rocketbelt magic and derivativeschemes caught the eye of NASA.

Therocketbelt concept led directly to the first manned maneuvering unit pioneeredfor the Gemini program and later in Skylab, said Barry DiGregorio, a science writer,rocketbelt aficionado, as well as a research associate for the Cardiff Centrefor Astrobiology in Wales.

"Inthe 1960's the rocketbelt was modified and almost used by NASA on Apollo
for exploration of the lunar surface ... and even as a lunar rescue vehicle hadthe lunar module ascent engine failed to ignite," DiGregorio told"In the low gravity environment of the Moon the astronauts could have simplyunstowed their rocket belts and rendezvoused with the command module waiting inlunar orbit. NASA opted for the lunar rover car instead, trusting that thelunar module ascent engine would not fail ... a risky gamble."

Yetthe future of the jet belt depends on replacing the heavy hydrogen peroxidefuel tank system with something more efficient to extend the flight time, DiGregoriosaid, "perhaps using ducted fans or small jet engines. The potential to use therocketbelt/jet belt for rescue in high rise fires or other natural disastersneeds to be explored. For sports flying enthusiasts it would be the ultimateflying machine...flight without wings!"

Flying rocket chair

Takingpart in next month's convention is rocketman Ky Michaelson. He has been busy atwork for several years on rocketbelt designs.

"I decided to showthe world that you could easily build a rocketbelt for less then the cost of anice motorcycle. That was my first goal. My other goal was to fly one foot offthe ground ... and I would be happy guy," Michaelson told

Michaelsonsaid he's focused on a flying rocket chair, not only able to carry moreperoxide for a longer flight time, but also easier to fly.

"Ipredict that some day there will be people racing rocket belts just like airraces," Michaelson explained. "But I also predict that if there are ten rocketbelts flying at least four people will be killed or seriously injured. I hope Iam wrong. But these things are incredibly dangerous," he said.

Hydrogenperoxide rockets are simple, Michaelson added. "I have never seen one thatdidn't work. I have had over 700 firings of hydrogen peroxide rockets ... but ifyou are not careful, either the vehicle will get you or the fuel will."

Air rage

Butthe rocketbelt as mainstream flying machine in the future does not appear to bein the cards, enthusiasts said.

"Ifyou think gas is expensive, try peroxide! Plus, the mileage is worse than aHummer or a Ferrari," Clough told "And where can you get toin 30 seconds, especially when you have to descend in time so you don't crash."

Thereis the issue of local noise ordinances, Clough added. "Then think of the
problem ofdriving under the influence: DUI in the air with rockets on our backs. Or air rage?" For the average person, Clough said, the fantasy of rocketbelt flying is betterthan the reality.

"Formost of us, the juice isn't worth the squeeze. Generally speaking, I thinkbuilding and a flying rocketbelt is a 'guy thing'...but you have to be a reallysmart guy, like a rocket scientist, in good shape, with good balance and a lotof money. That is not the mainstream," Clough concluded.

Formore information on the convention, rocket yourself to:

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.