No jet-propelled backpacks ... yet

As an American who grew up reading science fiction day and night, seeing it on TV, and learning about the wonders of the future in Life magazine and other respected journals, I have gradually come to accept the fact that real life in the 21st century will not resemble my childhood expectations.

This isn't a complaint. I'm actually glad some predictions haven't come true, especially the notion that people in this era would all be wearing spacey-looking outfits made of aluminum foil. I look absolutely terrible in silver.

It's also a huge relief not having robots as household servants, because I'm certain no machine could ever match my passion or determination when it comes to eradicating stubborn mildew and rust stains from the shower.

But I do feel saddened and somewhat cheated that one piece of hardware which has figured heavily in countless stories, comic strips, and cinematic depictions of futuristic lifestyles still does not exist: the basic rocket belt.

For many years, it seemed like strap-on propulsion devices would be the next logical step in the evolution of personal transportation. The idea of heading skyward with the flick of a switch fits perfectly into our pioneer heritage of adventure and exploration.

My concept of individual flight technique was heavily influenced by Republic Studios, which produced a number of serials in the 1940s and '50s featuring a character named Commando Cody. He went airborne using a rocket-powered backpack, and flew horizontally with his hands extended like Superman. I wanted it all - the flight suit, the goofy helmet, everything.

In 1964, technology was catching up with the movies. I remember seeing an actual demonstration of a rocket backpack televised from the New York World's Fair. The guy went up about 50 feet, hovered, and came back down. The same contraption showed up later on several episodes of "Lost In Space," enabling the Robinson family to conduct aerial searches whenever Will or Penny wandered off and was captured by a talking plant or other life-form.

And then, nothing happened. The idea of individual, on-demand flight seemed to drift out of public consciousness. I sometimes wondered if a sinister conspiracy was in play. Perhaps tire companies were suppressing rocket-belt research to keep their profit margins from going completely flat.

Eventually, I learned that the rocket-belt prototype from the mid-'60s was not capable of blasting us average citizens into the new frontier. It apparently gulped fuel at warp speed, so each flight only lasted a few minutes, and the noise level was higher than a symphony of leaf blowers, which isn't conducive to a peaceful, relaxing journey through the clouds.

I GUESS IT'S probably for the best. Commuting to work by rocket belt would have created real problems for the downtown core area in many cities.

Starbucks would need to hire air-traffic controllers and build special landing areas to prevent mass collisions every morning.

There would also be the inevitable controversies over proposed helmet laws for rocket-belt users, and the danger posed by people who talk on their cellphones or drink hot beverages while traversing congested airspace.

It's intriguing to think what people in 1964 would say if I went back in time and explained that the hottest new trend in personal transportation at the start of the new millennium would be little metal scooters made in China.

They'd probably tell me to take a flying leap. I wonder if I ever will.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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