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Here's Your Jetpack

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Jetpacks have long been a staple of American futurism: we believe that soon, just down the line a bit, we'll be able to strap on a jet-powered backpack and fly to work. But, decade after decade, no jetpacks. At least not at my house. The "Where's My Jetpack?" notion is such a mainstay of futurist thinking that it's the title of a book. But despite not having your own jetpack, various prototypes have been built and actually worked. Let's have a look at the best-known jetpack, which was actually called a "rocket belt."

The Bell Aerosystems Rocket Belt

Bell Aerosystems developed the Rocket Belt under contract with the US Army. Its flying time was extremely limited (about 20 seconds), but it actually worked -- tests were carried out throughout the 1960s, as well as flights at the 1984 and 1996 Summer Olympics. In the demo video below (circa 1966), test pilot Bill Suitor demonstrates the pack, explaining that a timer buzzes against his skull as he flies -- if he runs out of jet fuel, he crashes to the ground. (Incidentally, apparently this happened to inventor Wendell Moore in an early test flight, causing Moore to break a kneecap and stop flying. The early test flights used a ground tether to prevent enthusiastic novice pilots from shooting up too high to safely descend within the 20-second-ish window.) When asked about parachutes and other methods of descent in this video, Suitor chuckles and says, "We rely on gravity." He has a point -- he's not flying high enough for a parachute to help. BEHOLD:

Suitor flew 1,200 times using this device, and wrote a book about being a jetpack pilot, called The Rocketbelt Pilot's Manual. He appeared in a laundry list of TV shows and movies piloting the pack, including: The A-Team, The Fall Guy, Gilligan's Island, Lost in Space, Newhart (!), The Six Million Dollar Man, and the Bond movie Thunderball.

And here's some footage (no sound) of two Bell Rocket Belts flying simultaneously (note the 16mm movie camera mounted on one pilot's helmet). Because of the time limitations, this one-minute movie must have entailed multiple refueling sessions.

And here's Suitor flying at Disneyland in 1965:

(The title of this video says the event took place in 1966, but helpful commenters helped determine that it was probably taken in late December, 1965.)

And a seven-minute History Channel clip about the Rocket Belt:

You can also watch a ten-minute silent film featuring various clips of test flights in the 1960s.

Although the Bell Rocket Belt is the best-known working jetpack, there have been others. NASA uses a jetpack on its EVAs so astronauts can maneuver and return to the spacecraft (plus, there were early plans for a Bell product to go to the Moon on the Apollo missions, notably a two-man variant called the Bell POGO), and various private companies have worked on the technology -- Wikipedia's jetpack page has a good roundup. Also relevant is a MythBusters episode in which the guys attempt to build a jetpack.

So, to answer the "Where's my jetpack?" question: it has been around in various forms since the 1960s, but it's dangerous, requires extensive training to operate, and has run times measured in seconds. But, hey, it exists.

The Jetpack Murder

There's a curious 1990s coda to the jetpack saga involving an "RB-2000" jetpack and an unsolved murder. You can read all about it from Atlas Obscura. Here's a tidbit:

By the time the RB-2000 was flying over the Houston Ship Channel, the company was already in ruins. Barker and Stanley were at each others throats, while the third partner Joe Wright had a failing car stereo business and a escalating crystal meth addiction. Even before the inaugural flight of the belt, Barker and Stanley had had a terrible falling out. Stanley believed Barker was stealing money from the company and when he confronted Barker, they fought violently. From a 2002 Sunday Herald article:

"Stanley got in my face," Barker recalls. "I grabbed a five-pound, dead-blow, lead-filled hammer off the table. I hit Stanley short blows twice to the back of the head. That pretty much ended the partnership."

Read the rest. It's worth it. The book Jetpack Dreams also covers this topic in depth.

See also: Jetpacks: The Future Is Now; Where's My Jetpack?

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science
Why a Howling Wind Sounds So Spooky, According to Science
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Halloween is swiftly approaching, meaning you'll likely soon hear creepy soundtracks—replete with screams, clanking chains, and howling winds—blaring from haunted houses and home displays. While the sound of human suffering is frightful for obvious reasons, what is it, exactly, about a brisk fall gust that sends shivers up our spines? In horror movie scenes and ghost stories, these spooky gales are always presented as blowing through dead trees. Do bare branches actually make the natural wailing noises louder, or is this detail added simply for atmospheric purposes?

As the SciShow's Hank Green explains in the video below, wind howls because it curves around obstacles like trees or buildings. When fast-moving air goes around, say, a tree, it splits up as it whips past, before coming back together on the other side. Due to factors such as natural randomness, air speed, and the tree's surface, one side's wind is going to be slightly stronger when the two currents rejoin, pushing the other side's gust out of the way. The two continue to interact back-and-forth in what could be likened to an invisible wrestling match, as high-pressure airwaves and whirlpools mix together and vibrate the air. If the wind is fast enough, this phenomenon will produce the eerie noise we've all come to recognize in horror films.

Leafy trees "will absorb some of the vibrations in the air and dull the sound, but without leaves—like if it's the middle of the winter or the entire forest is dead—the howling will travel a lot farther," Green explains. That's why a dead forest on a windy night sounds so much like the undead.

Learn more by watching SciShow's video below.

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Space
SpaceX's Landing Blooper Reel Shows That Even Rocket Scientists Make Mistakes
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SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket launches.
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On March 30, 2017, SpaceX did something no space program had done before: They relaunched an orbital class rocket from Earth that had successfully achieved lift-off just a year earlier. It wasn't the first time Elon Musk's company broke new ground: In December 2015, it nailed the landing on a reusable rocket—the first time that had been done—and five months later landed a rocket on a droneship in the middle of the ocean, which was also unprecedented. These feats marked significant moments in the history of space travel, but they were just a few of the steps in the long, messy journey to achieve them. In SpaceX's new blooper reel, spotted by Ars Technica, you can see just some of the many failures the company has had along the way.

The video demonstrates that failure is an important part of the scientific process. Of course when the science you're working in deals with launching and landing rockets, failure can be a lot more dramatic than it is in a lab. SpaceX has filmed their rockets blowing up in the air, disintegrating in the ocean, and smashing against landing pads, often because of something small like a radar glitch or lack of propellant.

While explosions—or "rapid unscheduled disassemblies," as the video calls them—are never ideal, some are preferable to others. The Falcon 9 explosion that shook buildings for miles last year, for instance, ended up destroying the $200 million Facebook satellite onboard. But even costly hiccups such as that one are important to future successes. As Musk once said, "If things are not failing, you are not innovating enough."

You can watch the fiery compilation below.

[h/t Ars Technica]

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