Extreme Science: Science in the Danger Zone


Inventors...scientists...researchers...daring thinkers the world over attempt the impossible and take extreme risks - even when it means putting their own lives on the line. These are their stories.



Selected, Our Choice Canadian Children’s Book Centre, 2000
Selected, ResourceLinks Magazine – Best of the Year 2000



Harold Graham had twenty seconds to prove the worth of the bulky contraption on his back. Twenty seconds to blast skywards, scoot a short distance, and land safely...or die trying.

Strapped to Graham's back was a wild and dangerous device. In some ways it resembled the scuba gear carried by divers. It had two tanks and a system of hoses and nozzles. But instead of guiding Graham below the ocean surface, this device fired him aloft.

The contraption was called a rocket belt. It had been invented by Wendell Moore, an engineer who worked for Bell Aerosystems in the 1950s. Mostly made from spare parts, the rocket belt had two tanks filled with hydrogen peroxide. The fuel was fed over a fine metal screen which changed it to steam. When the steam was forced through a pair of nozzles, it unleashed enough thrust to shoot a person upward.

Graham, a young engineering student, volunteered to test the device. On April 20, 1961, near the airport in Niagara Falls, New York, he strapped the heavy equipment to his back In each hand he held throttles similar to those used to play video games. By pressing on the throttles, he could control the force and direction of the steam coming from the nozzles. Graham had just enough fuel in his tanks for a twenty-second flight. If he flew too high or went too far and ran short of fuel, he would crash to the ground. Timing was everything.

When he was ready, Graham engaged the rockets. A blast of steam erupted from the tanks with an ear-shattering screech. Graham slowly rose up out of the cloud of steam. High above the ground he adjusted the throttles and zipped ahead a short distance, hovered for a moment, then gracefully lowered himself to the ground.

As brief as it was, Graham's flight made rocket history and proved that free-wheeling human flight was entirely possible.


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