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Blast from the Past

UB houses a rare piece of engineering history

Photo: Douglas Levere

By Julie Wesolowski

Of the five rocket belts created by Bell Aerosystems, four remain in existence. There’s one at the Ira G. Ross Aerospace Museum in Niagara Falls, N.Y.; one at the U.S. Army Transportation Museum in Fort Eustis, Va.; and one at an annex of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum. As for the fourth, it’s right here on UB’s North Campus, in the corner of a Bell Hall engineering classroom.

Rocket belt fuel tank

Early rocket belt demonstration

Preparing for liftoff

After experimenting in the mid-1950s, Bell Aerosystems engineer Wendell F. Moore built the first rocket belt, also called the “man-rocket,” for the U.S. Army. Developed to transport soldiers across difficult terrain, the belt used a combination of nitrogen pressure and hydrogen peroxide fuel to provide thrust.

So how did it land here?

While working at Bell Aerosystems, UB engineering alum David Coe (MS ’73) learned the company was getting out of the rocket belt business. He thought one of the prototypes might be available and that Bell Hall—which houses UB’s Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering and was named after Lawrence D. Bell, the founder of Bell Aerosystems—would be an ideal place to keep it. The efforts of Coe and UB engineering professor Warren Thomas (now emeritus) led to the donation of the belt to the department in the late ’70s.

Not quite Wright

In 1961, in an open field outside the Niagara Falls International Airport, the first outdoor, tether-free flight soared a distance of 112 feet (the Wright Brothers flew 120 feet at Kitty Hawk). More practice flights proved the rocket could carry a person over obstacles almost 32 feet high and reach a speed of 34 miles per hour, but flight times were a problem. A maximum of 21 seconds in the air was deemed too short to be useful, and the project was shortly abandoned.

Aiming for the stars

We can’t say whether it was the one belonging to UB, but the 1965 James Bond film “Thunderball” used a rocket belt as one of its 007 props. One of the five prototype belts was also featured on the “Lost in Space” television series in the 1960s and on “Ark ll,” a Saturday morning show on CBS in the late ’70s.

Still pretty cool… decades later

From a private demonstration for JFK in 1961 to a Pentagon courtyard flight before a large military audience in 1962, the original rocket belt captivated viewers from the start. More recently, improved versions have been used in presentations at Disneyland, and at the 1986 and 1996 Summer Olympics opening ceremonies.