Almanac: Rocket belt

And now a page from our "Sunday Morning" Almanac: April 20th, 1961, 53 years ago today . . . the day a man on Earth took a giant leap for mankind.

For that was the day Harold Graham made the first untethered flight in a rocket belt, flying 100 feet across a field near Niagara Falls in New York.

Long a favorite gadget in the world of science fiction, developing a working rocket device proved more difficult to pull off in science fact.

Serious development started in the 1950s. Tethered flights began in late 1960, followed finally by Graham's flight . . . and then, proud claims of success by the contractor, Bell Aerospace:

"The feasibility of man's free and controlled flight with a rocket belt has been adequately demonstrated. Now this new dimension in mobility may be selected for practical applications, and through engineering development the rocket belt will emerge as a practical and useful device."

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Harold Graham made the first untethered flight in a rocket belt, near Niagara Falls, N.Y., on April 20, 1961.
Bell Aerospace

Despite further testing and public demonstrations -- including one outside the Pentagon, and another in front of President John F. Kennedy -- the cumbersome rocket belt, with its 21-second maximum flight time, wasn't actually of much practical use.

It has since been seen more in movies than in real life.

Sean Connery as James Bond took flight in a rocket belt in the 1965 film, "Thunderball."

And the rocket belt was the whole point of the 1991 film, "The Rocketeer," starring Billy Campbell.

Today, the rocket belt stands (if that's the right word) as an icon of a future that never was . . . right up there with the flying car.


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