Jetpack Dreams: One Man's Up and Down (But Mostly Down) Search For The Greatest Invention That Never Was
In June of this year, at an air show in Oshkosh, Wisc., a New Zealander named Glenn Martin strapped his 16-year-old son into what he calls the Martin Jetpack, and sent him hovering above the ground, restrained by two burly men. The much-hyped demonstration can be seen in videos, and at the end, after young Martin touches down in what looks like one of those stands that holds action figures upright with a pair of enormous, noisy ducted fans at the back, someone in the crowd screams out, "I want one!" A friend with whom I had been watching Martin's announcement on YouTube had a different reaction: "If that thing is a jetpack, a Honda Civic is what? A roadpack?"
Yes, it's true: The future is here and it is disappointing. Brooklyn, N.Y., writer Mac Montandon, whose interest in cool stuff is also evidenced by his book Innocent When You Dream: The Tom Waits Reader, traces the history and development of man's quixotic quest for a flying backpack--from the pages of Buck Rogers stories to a physics student's dorm room at Queen's College in Ireland--in his new book Jetpack Dreams.
It's not giving too much away to say that the jetpack revolution promised by the pulps has yet to arrive. What Montandon does find, however, is more interesting: a loose conglomeration of madmen and visionaries, tinkering away in garages, backyards, and secret government facilities around the world, trying to cash the check Buck Rogers wrote in 1928. They appear to be driven as much by sci-fi touchstones such as Buck Rogers and Boba Fett as by any practical need for backpack assisted flight. (Montandon makes the case for The Rocketeer as well--the movie that starred Jennifer Connelly as a character based on Bettie Page also featured some sort of flying device.)
Along the way, two obstacles to the fully realized jetpack become clear. First, that it is extremely difficult to perfect the technical aspects of the thing: Even after the problem of the throttle valve has been solved, the weight-to-fuel ratio is a hurdle that has yet to be overcome. Jetpack technology, as it stands today, may be good for half-time shows and James Bond movies, but the time when we will kiss our spouses goodbye in the morning and rocket off to work is still a very long way off.
The second problem strikes deeper at the heart of the enterprise: It is, on the face of it, a spectacularly bad idea. Next time you are stuck in rush hour traffic, look at the people around you. Now imagine that all of you have taken to the skies. If that doesn't terrify you, it may be time to rent a garage and begin building.
Montandon asks Bill Suitor, a jetpack pioneer, about the future at a Buffalo conference devoted to this sort of thing. According to Montandon, the encounter goes like this: "Do you foresee a time when we'll all be like the Jetsons flying around?" Suitor answers: "I hope not."
It is Montandon's reaction that sums up the hope and realism of the rocketman: "My stomach drops a bit, even as my nodding, grinning face says, 'God bless the old straight shooter.'"
Jetpacks, like disposable paper suits, meals in a pill, and mining colonies on the moon may still be somewhere on the horizon. We've been promised them a long time, long enough to realize that maybe they aren't such a great idea. Maybe some dreams are best left on the pages of the comics. On the other hand, when do we get our goddamned jetpacks?