Humans have always envied the carefree flight of birds (never mind that whole "eating half your body weight daily" thing).
Leonardo da Vinci famously tinkered with the idea of a one-man flying machine. (Here's an interpretation of his design, built by Opera Laboratori Fiorentini, recently on loan at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.)
A tightrope walker in the court of France’s Louis XIV also reportedly toyed with the notion. And then there was this guy…
Caption byJefferson Reid
/ Photo by Mark Avino, Smithsonian Institution
In 1678, a French locksmith named Besnier built a pair of oscillating wings.
According to a railroading journal from the 1800s, Besnier's contraption "consisted of two bars of wood hinged over the shoulders, and carrying wings of muslin, arranged like folding shutters, so as to open flat on the down stroke and fold up edgewise on the up stroke."
Besnier was apparently able to fly over a "the roof of an adjoining cottage" and even sell a pair of wings to a traveling "mountebank."
By 1928, when heroes like Buck Rogers jetted onto the scene in pulpy magazines (like this one, from that exact year) the idea of fuel-powered personal flying gizmos was already getting a grip on our fevered imaginations.
When Superman cruised onto the scene a few years later, it was clear there that mankind was definitely ready to fly without a net...or a space on an airplane.
If real-life jetpacks were slow to gain momentum, the concept was soaring in pop culture. Rocket Man was a hugely popular character through the mid-'50s in movie serials.
Sometimes known as Commando Cody, and by other aliases, because, apparently, no one was paying attention in the '50s, Rocket Man kept the jetpack flame burning bright until scientists could actually figure out how to make these things work without burning people's legs off.
The strap-on jet belt was extensively tested and worked well after a fashion.
But if the test period was long, the flights certainly weren't -- only lasting about 20 seconds or so. Luckily, the Rocket Belt rig included a safety buzzer that went off in its helmet when the wearer about to run out of fuel.
The difference between a jetpack and a Rocket Belt is actually more than semantic.
Instead of being a mini jet engine, a Rocket Belt is powered by a chemical reaction where hydrogen peroxide is mixed with liquid nitrogen and a silver catalyst. Regardless, both kinds of engines run hot and are also expensive and cumbersome.
Case in point: A 30-second rocket belt ride uses roughly $1,500 in fuel. So obviously, you're not using your rocket belt to run errands.
One place jetpacks really do work like a dream is in outer space. When we finally got there, we discovered that the near zero-g environment of Earth's orbit was the perfect place for this kind of propulsion.
For instance, Challenger astronaut Bruce McCandless demonstrated this exhilarating and somewhat scary freedom on a 1984 spacewalk wearing a nitrogen propelled backpack and free-flying 320 feet from the mother ship.
The flight was the culmination of years of experimentation involving 15 different jet-pack prototypes. The winning version, a 120-pound device, still required the wearer to jump out of an aircraft above 7,000 feet before free-falling to gain speed.