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Rocket Belt

History:

The concept of a rocket belt stretches back to science fiction of the late 1920's comic strip hero "Buck Rogers" who is supposed to have travelled this way in the far future. During the same period, an unknown young and foolhardy German inventor attempted to roller skate more rapidly than usual by attaching a pack of solid-fuel (gunpowder) rockets on his back. The all-too brief experiment was captured in the newsreels of the early 1930's and shows his embarrassed quick and hard landing on the ground. Similar rocket-propelled ice skaters tried the stunt with like results. A rocket belt was also featured in several movie serials of the late 1940's, notably, "King of the Rocket Men" (Republic Pictures, 1949).

Technically speaking, the idea of a workable rocket belt is credited to Wendell Moore, an engineer with Bell Aerosystems in 1953. Moore then called the device the un-romantic name of Small Rocket Lift Device, or SRLD. (Ironically, an earlier concept of a rocket belt was conceived from about 1948 by another engineer named Moore, who was unrelated to Wendell, and whose first was name was Tom, though his efforts are less well documented. Some tests were made by the Army in the early 1950's at Redstone Arsenal but did not lead anywhere.)

Meanwhile, Wendell Moore and his colleagues saw this as a great technical challenge since they had to contend with the problem of achieving stability of a man using the device. They also considerable time work out the positions of the small thrust nozzles for maximum efficiency and safety.

A nitrogen gas-powered rig was first built and made entirely of steel tubing. The nozzles pointed downwards and fitted with small thrust control valves. The device was tethered by a 15 ft flexible hose to a control system worked on the ground by a test engineer on the ground operating the valves which increased or decreased the nitrogen flow. It was found that the flex hose restrained the users's movements.

Wendell Moore himself tried out the first self-operated version in 1958, though there were ropes attached to control any unexpected violent manoeuver. The hops were short and rough but did succeed. In time, arm-control levers and other refinements were added, but instability was still encountered in which one of the flying test engineers was almost injured.

Eventually a stable flight and height of 15 ft was reached. The U.S, Army began to show interest in the device by 1959 and requested a study program. Another aerospace company, Aerojet-General, was contracted to undertake one of these studies. Reaction Motors, Inc. (RMI) likewise began experimenting with similar rocket belts.

The Army negotiated with Bell for the fabrication of the SRLD and a contract was awarded to the Army's Transportation, Research and Engineering Command (TRECOM) for military feasibility studies and trials. Moore was named Bell's Technical Director for the project. Under the contract, a 280-lb thrust rocket motor was made and tested. Peroxide was chosen as the safest fuel for personnel use as no combustion took place, just the expulsion of pressurized peroxide gases, while the operator wore a form-fitting fiberglass corset for safety. Many tethered flight were conducted, with Moore as the operator, at the Bell plant at Buffalo. Jetavators, for controlling the yaw or pitch were also tried. However, Moore sustained an injury of a fractured knee in one flight and was never able to experience a free flight in his invention.

It was left to another engineer, Harold Graham, to continue the test flights and to eventually achieve the first free flight on April 20, 1961. Graham flew successfully at 7 to 10-mph for 13 seconds over a distance of 112 feet. Other milestones were soon reached, including a flight over a 30 ft. hill and a flight over a stream and circular flights over obstacles like trucks. The first public demonstration was made by the Army at Fort Eustice, Virginia, on June 8, 1961. The flight received wide acclaim and an even more spectacular flight was made before a large crowd, including general officers, on the Pentagon lawn.

Public flights were made thereafter at fairs and similar events across the country, including a flight before President Kennedy at Fort Bragg, N.C.

However, despite the belt's apparent popularity, it turned out to be a commercial failure, mainly due to its limited use because of its short duration use. The Army's higher priority of missile development also contributed toward the loss of Army interest. The Army, and also Marine Corps which had considered the belt, did not adopt it and Bell no longer became sought its further development. In January, 1970, a license to sell and manufacture the Bell Jet Belt was granted by Bell Aerospace Textron to Williams International (formerly Williams Research Corp.) of Walled Lake, Michigan. Williams went onto to develop an improved, longer-duration jet-powered version of the belt.

Today, the rocket belt like the original, are occasionally used for its entertainment and publicity value, at football half-time shows and in movie stunts. One belt was also flown at the 1984 Olympic Games.

The rocket belt is not to be confused with the Manned Maneuvering Unit (MMU) used by astronauts in space which was a totally different technological development. The other existing original Bell rocket belt is found at the State University of New York, Buffalo campus.






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