Sky’s the Limit: James Bond and the Future of Jet Pack Technology

By Bianca Longlisci, C2ST Intern, Loyola University

What if humans could fly? It’s a question almost every person has asked themselves, but it seems like the answer to it may no longer be something left for science fiction to decide. After a recent visit to the Museum of Science and Industry’s new 007 Science exhibit, I became fascinated by a unique technology that theoretically allows humans to soar through the air– jet packs. Jetpacks appear in several blockbusters like Star Wars and Asteroid City, but what is unique about the jetpack in the 1965 Bond film Thunderball is that it is fully functional in real life. How do jetpacks work, and are they still only free to be used by fictional super spies?

The jet pack used in Thunderball is known as the Bell Rocket Belt and is considered to be the first functional jetpack. It uses nitrogen to push hydrogen peroxide into a small chamber. Inside, a reaction occurs that produces a burst of steam, propelling the wearer into the air. It sounds simple, but the Rocket Belt cost roughly $200,000 to create (almost $2 million in today’s money) and could only keep a person in the air for 20 seconds before running out of fuel. The high input cost combined with such a short flight time are the main reasons why the Rocket Belt never really “took off” as a product.

Even though the Rocket Belt was a bust, scientists haven’t given up on inventing a useful jet pack. In the 1980s, scientists at NASA developed a jetpack that could be used by astronauts to maneuver around the outside of their spaceships. At the start of the 21st century, scientists experimented with winged jet packs to be used by people down on Earth. Later, in 2012, a jet pack that uses water to propel the wearer into the air was tested. Over the past few decades, scientists have also experimented with various types of personal-sized helicopters and airplanes designed to function like jet packs. Sadly, like the Rocket Belt, most of these innovative ideas have been abandoned. The technology is not yet advanced enough for the short amount of air time to be worth the high cost of designing and fueling the jet packs.

Despite the challenges, the US government is still interested in finding an affordable way to create more functional jet packs. In 2021, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which supports the US military via the Pentagon, announced that they would be open to funding a promising idea for a jetpack with up to $1.5 million for development costs. The UK’s Royal Marine Commandos are currently testing the use of jet packs to quickly board ships. The US military is following in their footsteps and hopes that someone’s creative idea might be the solution to getting their soldiers off the ground safely and efficiently. Maybe someday, we’ll all be using jet packs to get around!

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