The Grasshopper: The Army Jet Pack That Wasn’t

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Commando Cody Skymarshall of the Universe - rocket pack

Commando Cody, Sky Marshal of the Universe

I have an ongoing interest in jet packs, ever since I first saw Commando Cody on TV when I was a kid.

Commando Cody used super-science to take on super-villains out to destroy the Earth and control the Universe (because, you know, Earth is usually the first stop in everyone’s plans for universal domination). Cody had a cool, bullet-shaped helmet, a “rocket pack” on his back, and three large buttons on his chest harness that surely did Something Important.1 When danger threatened, he’d put on his helmet and off he’d fly to save the world. I especially loved the flying parts, but the heroics weren’t half bad either, or so thought my 3- and 4-year-old self.

Oh, how I yearned for a rocket-pack of my own! It was called a jet pack by other heroes, but they weren’t on TV in 1959, and Commando Cody was.2  One of my enduring disappointments is that jet packs have not (yet!) become a practical daily transportation device. Alas, another failed science vision.

Rocketman flying with jet pack

For this reason, the jet pack as a technology qualifies for this occasional series I am doing on Future Science.3,4 However, in this post, I have to share with you something I came across while researching jet packs for that aforementioned article. It is a device worthy of my hero, Commando Cody, Sky Marshal of the Universe. It is a device every soldier wants to have on the battlefield, and it is called….The Grasshopper.

The Grasshopper

Grasshopper test - Army jet pack 1958
This marvel of modern engineering was powered by nitrogen gas canisters strapped to the back, which directed their force downward through nozzles on a jump belt. An early version permitted a test operator to jump four feet straight into the air, and forward for longer than normal broad-jump distances. A later, more refined model apparently allowed an upward jump of 23 feet, and assisted by the belt’s thrust, the wearer could run up to 30 mph. The intent was to permit soldiers to leap high, jump far, and clear battlefield obstacles, getting the advantage over the enemy with their increased mobility.

Well, that was the plan, anyway.

It certainly seemed like a promising notion. The project was developed by Thiokol‘s Reaction Motors division. Thiokol is famous in the annals of the aerospace industry for their work in the development of solid fuel rockets. This is the same company that brought us motors and rocket propulsion stages for the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo programs, the propulsion system for the Minuteman and other missiles, and the solid fuel rocket boosters for the Space Shuttle. (They also developed the Snowcat – later spun off – and in a morphed corporate form under the name of ATK they are still in existence, developing vehicles for Mars exploration programs). Their Reaction Motor division pioneered such useful things as the rocket motors in aircraft ejection seats, and some of the earliest airbags, including those that swaddled the touch-down of the Mars Pathfinder. (And for the geeks among us, I bring you a cool freebie science doc here from Thiokol, called “Rocket Basics” – everything you wanted to know about basic rocket propulsion, but didn’t know to ask.)

Grasshopper - Army jet pack jump test 1958
No wonder these masters of contained propulsive force should turn their hand to the much-longed-for jet pack. The project was introduced to the public in the pages of Popular Science, and even Life magazine got into the act. Featuring test operator Ed Kurczewski, Life tells us that he is a “durable man” – as he must have been, to be the live crash test dummy for this crude jet belt system. “Kurczewski has landed in creeks and banged into hills, leaving him a mass of bruises.”5 But it was all in a good cause: “Grasshopper’s makers hope to sell their device to the U.S. Army to help infantrymen jump streams, scale cliffs and surmount other obstacles.”

After an initial PR burst in 1958, though, the Grasshopper quietly faded from the news. Funding failed to materialize from the government, and the project was abandoned.

Commando Cody would not be happy with our lack of perseverance.

1 They were flight controls, labeled with words like “Up” and “Down”. At the time I was too young to decipher such arcane information.

2 Commando Cody first appeared in The Radar Men of Mars, a 1952 movie serial apparently inspired by the success of the 1949 serial King of the Rocketmen. In fact, the helmet and rocket pack costume are identical, as is much of the stock footage of flying; apparently Commando Cody is one of the “Rocketmen”, although the Cody shows make no direct reference to King of the Rocketmen. No need for real plot explanations, though: these were both serials produced by Republic, and used many of the same sets, actors and stock footage throughout.

Cody returned in a dedicated series in 1953 designed for TV (although it also ran in theaters), called Commando Cody: Sky Marshal of the Universe. The show abandoned the traditional serial format to create a series of stand-alone stories of a 27-minute length designed to air comfortably on television. This is the Commando Cody who introduced me to the thrill of powered flight. He also left a deep imprint on my subconscious, for in writing this I just realized I created a holovid entertainment character in my novel Splintegrate named Commander Kolo: a hero who has improbable adventures and rescues the world, and inspires children with his clever feats. Hm, I wonder where that came from…

This rocket-pack-wearing hero was cut of the same space opera cloth as Buck Rogers (created in 1928) and, as mentioned, his virtual twin, King of the Rocketmen (an inspiration for the 1991 movie The Rocketeer), For a great roundup of Commando Cody and other space opera heroes, be sure to check out Don’t Dare Miss the Next Thrilling Chapter, by Anthony L. Fletcher.

3 Alas, too occasional, but I decided I need much more Future Science here, so I promise to be more science-y in the future.

4 Here we take a look at things people once thought might be commonplace in the future. Well, the future is here, now, and what happened with these various inventions and technological byways? Things like the jet pack? Good question, and I promise that an article on the much-lamented jet pack will be coming up soon for this category.

5 Life, June 30. 1958 p34. Grasshopper photos from same page.

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