Ever since Buck Rogers wore a comic-book jetpack in 1928, enthusiasts have predicted that the backpack-rockets would someday fly real people around.
That day is here for a new group of jetpack enthusiasts. This year, two tinkerers plan to pilot their homemade packs in free flight. And a Silicon Valley company that started marketing jetpacks in 2008 has collected deposits from four prospective buyers.
The question is whether any normal person would do this. Pilots flying the devices jet around with 1,300-degree steam shooting inches from their legs while they worry about landing before the pack runs out of fuel in 30 seconds.
"When you tell someone that you are going to build a jetpack, you get strange looks," says Gerard Martowlis, an environmental engineer in Rahway, N.J., who has been building a jetpack in his basement since the late 1990s.
Martowlis, 55 years old, says he has spent about $50,000 on his pack, which he has tested six times on a tether in his backyard. In one test, he got his feet caught in the exhaust and was thrown 15 feet; he escaped with just a big burn blister.