The Schiensh of Bond: Thunderball

With the fourth James Bond film in the Incredible Suit’s BlogalongaBond (the first of the films I’ve not seen before) I have leaped into unknown territory and have now returned from the underwater tedium of Thunderball. I’m probably not going to bother watching it again. Taking notes of ropey science is the only thing that kept me awake. So, let us commence Thundersnore.

In the pre-credit sequence, James Bond crashes a funeral, presumably in an attempt to pick up hot widows or something. Unfortunately the hot widow isn’t so female and after a bit of hero work in which said non-widow dies horribly horribly, Bond makes a break for it. Conveniently stashed on the roof is a jet powered rocket pack, which Bond uses to get off a building and cross the road to reach the get-away car. The flight is less than 20 seconds long. The jet pack is utterly pointless. He could have done it on foot. Lazy sod.

A promising start, I thought. Surely, a jet powered rocket pack would be incapable of such a feat.

I say let’s get into the jet-powered rocket pants and junior birdman the hell out of here!

An excellent and inventive suggestion, sir, with just two tiny drawbacks: a) We don’t have any jet-powered rocket pants; and b) there’s no such thing as jet-powered rocket pants outside the fictional serial “Robbie Rocket Pants.”

– Red Dwarf

My initial research revealed something rather surprising – namely this. The Bell Rocket Belt used in Thunderball, developed by the Bell Aerosystems for the US Army, actually worked. I, personally, was devastated. According to Wikipedia:

In the course of testing maximums of duration and distance were achieved: duration 21 seconds; range 120 m; height 10 m; speed, 55 km/h

After watching a demonstration the US military decided that the rocket pack was too gimicky and not particularly useful as a form of transport; the project was canned. But the novelty jet pack got regular outings. It was a total faff to master piloting the thing, so Connery was shot  taking off and landing, while a stunt-man did the actual flying.

So what’s the science? Well, flying straight up using a rocket is merely a matter of conservation of momentum (that’s Newton’s second law of motion). To go up, you need a device that can generate enough “up” or thrust to overcome gravity, much like what happens when a space shuttles launches. The thrust from this jet pack comes from an exothermic – energy producing – chemical reaction. Specifically, the decomposition of the highly reactive substance, hydrogen peroxide, to produce heat, water vapour and oxygen.

According to my A-level chemistry:

  2H2O → 2H2 + O2

Who doesn’t love a good diagram!

How it works:

The yellow (labelled 1) is nitrogen gas, which is kept at a high pressure. Nitrogen is almost inert which means it’s not very reactive. Which makes it useful here. The pilot is able to let the nitrogen gas out into the adjoining cylinders containing liquid hydrogen peroxide in blue (2), by using a valve (3). The pressure of the nitrogen forces the hydrogen peroxide into the gas generator (4). In the gas generator there is a catalyst which allows the hydrogen peroxide to react. The powerful exothermic reaction produces hot steam and oxygen gas, which goes through the jet nozzles (red) and create thrust. The pilot is able to direct the jet nozzles and pilot the thing.

The amount of hydrogen peroxide fuel that could be carried was limited, so maximum flight time was around 20 seconds. However, recent advances in the world of jet-powered rocket pants mean that they can now fly for 30 mins as this rather astonishing video shall now demonstrate:

The device is currently in testing, but you may soon be able to buy one for US$100,000 from Martin Jetpack. Unlike the Bell Rocket Belt, it works using fans rather than an exothermic chemical reaction and runs on petrol.

Thunderball was a landmark film in which the jet pack made one of its earliest appearances – a project born of pure science fiction, which has now become a reality.

Daddy, I think I found one. It’s perfect, and they can deliver it in three days.
Ah… It’s three hundred thousand bucks.
Can you think of anything else you’d rather spend it on?
Add to shopping cart.

Kick-Ass

The jet pack is still impacting on popular culture today…

Kick-Ass

Arrested Development

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  1. #1 by Peter Maskell on April 24, 2011 - 08:47

    Wikipedia as a reference…shame on you. Was the jet pack the only science in the film? You could have done a whole blog on the science of diving…..(keep up the good bond work your blogs are fun)

  2. #2 by followthelemur on April 24, 2011 - 16:29

    There appears to be a correlation between the effort I put into these blog posts and my enjoyment of the films. I kept nodding off during Thunderball.

    Bond goes diving in other films, doesn’t he?

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