Space-Walking in Rocket Shoes

Amy Shira Teitel
8 min readAug 6, 2021

You know that scene at the end of the Martian where Matt Damon pokes a hole in his glove and uses the force the escaping gas to rendezvous with his crew like he’s Ironman? NASA considered something similar, but instead of a hole in the suit, the agency wanted to use jet-powered shoes.

Jet Shoes in a test run. NASA.

The Need

In the early years of human space exploration, there were a lot of unknowns, and the list got longer as mission goals got more sophisticated. The initial goal of getting a human into orbit was fairly simple, but when NASA started thinking about having astronauts step outside for a spacewalk, there were new challenges. Getting an astronaut outside was one thing — the spacesuit would be a wearable spacecraft of sorts with all the life support he needed. But he wouldn’t just be going for a walk. Eventually, he’d need to work, which meant moving around the spacecraft to perform complex tasks.

Contrary to cartoons of the era, you can’t make swimming motions and move in a vacuum. There’s no air to push against, so you can’t paddle like you’re in water. You need a source of propulsion. A group of engineers at NASA’s Langley Research Centre led by John D. Bird came up with a simple propulsive solution: jets on a pair of overshoes.

Bird took inspiration from another early mobility concept called the “Flying Platform.” Developed by his colleagues Charles Zimmerman and Paul Hill, this was a proof-of-concept device designed to take advantage of our natural upright posture. Humans are really good at standing up and making micro-adjustments while walking or running to maintain an upright posture. Zimmerman and Hill figured that an astronaut standing on a propulsive board would be able to stay upright and have the added benefit of their hands being free for tasks. They never built their system, but early studies proved foot-based prolusion was viable.

Joh Bird. NASA.

Jet Shoes

Bird’s system worked on the same basic principles as the Flying Platform. His was a simple, pneumatic design. Fifteen pounds of gaseous oxygen pressurized at 6,000 pounds per square inch was stored in a backpack worn by the astronaut…

Amy Shira Teitel

Historian and author of Fighting for Space (February 2020) from Grand Central Publishing. Also public speaker, TV personality, and YouTuber. [The Vintage Space]