Science & Technology

Early Spacesuits Included Jet-Powered Boots You Controlled With Your Toes

In the "Avengers" movies, Robert Downey Jr. rockets around the world on jet boots. It's a pretty awesome look, and probably not one we're going to see in the real world anytime soon. But back in the early days of space travel, astronauts were nearly set to go through space on jet-boots of their own.

Ground Control to Major Toms

Today, astronauts on spacewalks rely on a sort of jet backpack called SAFER, but for a while, early designs of spacesuits included a set of jets strapped directly to the feet. The boots were the brainchild of John Bird, an engineer at NASA's Langley Research Center. In 1965, space travel was in its infancy — less than 20 people had been to space total, and the first spacewalks in history happened that year. So it's easy to see why engineers of the time were concerned with coming up with a way for astronauts to travel easily while outside of their spacecraft.

It feels natural to put jets on an astronaut's feet. People navigate with their feet, anyway, and it's easy to think about people in zero-G environments keeping themselves upright in the same way. Bird also thought about divers wearing swim fins. In a medium where you can travel in three dimensions, it's only natural to think of traveling by foot.

Bird's system was a relatively simple device that used about 15 pounds of compressed air to deliver about two pounds of thrust from each nozzle. They would have been controlled with a trigger device that the astronaut would wrap around their toes. Standing straight and putting the pedal to the metal would send the astronaut straight "upward," and any finer control in the three dimensions would be managed by aiming the legs. Sounds fun — and incredibly easy to lose control.

Testing the System

You don't exactly want to test your zero-G navigation system the first time you're actually in zero-G. That's why Bird set up a couple of rigs of varying complexity. Test subjects would be suspended from the ceiling and given the air jets to send themselves sailing through the air. Other, more complicated set-ups with whipple-tree mechanisms allowed the participants to perform rotational maneuvers.

Ultimately, the jet-shoes never took off (no pun intended). The system had some pretty major issues, including their unwieldy weight and doubts about if the pressurized suits would interfere with the toe-switch. The jetpack-like SAFER system could get around those issues while also providing greater stability. Still, it can't be as fun as jetting through the sky like Superman.

Can't get enough tales from the early days of space flight? Check out Tom Wolfe's "The Right Stuff" (free with a trial membership to Audible) for the unbelievable true story of the first Americans in orbit. If you purchase through that link, Curiosity will receive a portion of the sale.

Spacewalk from a First-Person Perspective

Written by Reuben Westmaas January 26, 2018