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Adam Savage explains why space suits are his happy place

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Appreciating the detail of space suits real and fake

Adam Savage loves space suits. When I interviewed him in March, he spoke about how safety equipment appealed to him, whether it was firefighter gear, the protective armor that bomb disposal personnels wear, or space suits of the fictional variety.

For the last several years, Savage would attend San Diego Comic-Con dressed up in a costume that hides his identity, something he calls Adam Incognito. This year, one of the costumes he suited up in was one used in the production of Alien: Covenant.

After he returned from the floor, I spoke with him about why he’s so attracted to these galactic wear.

This interview has been condensed for clarity.

Looking back to how you said you’re attracted to safety equipment, how did you find wearing the Alien space suit while walking around the floor today? Were you impervious to the crowds?

Well, I'm not impervious to the crowds, because about 75 people came up to me and said “you must be Adam.” I've definitely spoiled my own thing because I’ve done so much cosplay now that any time people see an elaborate, full suit, they ask if it’s me.

However, the guys at FBFX did a nice job [with this suit]. This fabric looks heavy duty. It looks like ballistic nylon, but it breathes quite well.

To you, what makes up a good space suit costume? What components do you look for?

The stuff that I really like in a space suit is the detail. In a NASA suit, I love the high-level details that tell the story that this was made by people. If you look at NASA hardware really close up you really can sense that these aren’t production-made items. They're one-offs, each one handmade by a machinist, designed by engineers. And, the best movie space suits are the ones that also communicate that same kind of hand-hewn attention to detail.

What's an example of a detail that you found stands out in a real or fictional suit?

Right now, I'm totally obsessed with the [Alien] Covenant stuff. They have a number of things like little brass tags and tiny markers, and even things like pressure readings that are based off of what the real pressure of that suit would probably be.

So what can cosplayers learn from real suits, and what can real suit makers learn from science fictional suits?

It's funny because real space suits almost never have lights in the helmet. [They’re] a totally a movie trope because you have to see the actors. There are almost no lights on any NASA suit.

There is a simplicity to NASA hardware and it's required: you need that simplicity. A film like Alien: Covenant is layering in [details] because they’re thinking of a future where these aren't one-off items: they are [mass-produced.]

With its reveal of the latest Z-2 backpack entry suit, NASA is definitely trying to sexy it up to garner a bit more public excitement. They gave it some color, called it the Mars Colonization Suit. I think that's a reasonable thing for an organization like NASA to do, and the positive benefits from The Martian, I think, led — if not directly then we’re at least partially responsible for — the increase in NASA's budget a couple of years later. These things capture the public's imagination.

NASA’s running out of space suits.

NASA is behind in their space suit production. It’s over a million dollars to make a space suit. They now have a set of replacement parts where they can fit together a suit that fits an astronaut by adjusting the arms and the legs and the various geometries.

But yeah, NASA uses a ludicrously complex set of procedures to make this the multilayer, air-proof suits it uses.

What what trends are you seeing in costume manufacturing that has changed how people are making suits?

There's two major leaps. One is from cosplayers: the advancement of foam building technology using camping mats, hot glue, and contact cement to make really elaborate costumes. It’s unparalleled: this is a really exciting time, and budgets are going lower because the materials are more easy to come by. It's just about the sweat equity of making sure the forms look great and curves are good.

The other major advancement that I'm really excited about is screen-printing dimension and texture onto lightweight fabrics, so that they look heavy-duty. Captain America’s Winter Soldier costume was an early, excellent harbinger of what's coming. They took four-way stretch dance fabric, which is really light and easy to wear for the actor, and they printed it with texture that made it look like the old ballistic nylon, which is much heavier and harder for the actor to wear, so it’s much more comfortable.

It turns out that a primary cost on making feature films is just getting the actors out and back into their costumes so they can eat lunch. No actor wants to sit in some giant space suit and try to eat a burrito. It sometimes takes an entire special effects team half an hour or maybe more to get an actor out of a cumbersome costume.

So, working with lighter-weight materials that breathe more definitely increases the the length of time the actors can spend in those suits, and then increases the amount the production can get done.

How about 3D printing and rapid prototyping? I know for some productions, they end up printing up a number of components or props.

3D printing has totally revolutionized both cosplay and costuming for movies. I know that neck rings that FBFX effects made for The Martian and for this suit were 3D printed. [Even] when you machine something and then cast it, trying to get the parts to couple back together is difficult, with the shrinkage inherent in casting and the shrinkage is dependent upon the volume of the material you're trying to cast. That means that some of these are straight 3D printed high strength resins, and that's kind of the only way you can do stuff like this.

[Pointing to the Alien Covenant Helmet on the table] How about this helmet in particular?

I think this helmet is largely 3D printed. Some of the forms for the carbon fiber pressure panels... the neck rings are totally 3D printed, and then there's all this brass etching and all this custom detail. FBFX and companies like it all around the world are using this to radically increase the shapes and the stuff they can produce, lowering the amount of time they need to make it.

Do you see this trickling into the cosplay consumer market?

It's totally trickling in the consumer market, because you can now buy an Ultimaker printer for a couple of grand, and get really impressive resolution for effectively a prosumer model 3D printer.

Last question: right now, what’s your favorite space suit?

Currently right now, it's both of the suits from Alien: Covenant: the hard suit that Tennessee wears, which has all 3D printed bearings. It's an absolute masterpiece of engineering. Those were not off-the-shelf components. That suit would have cost tens of thousands of dollars if they were. That was a completely wearable hard suit. That's simply because those guys wanted to push the envelope of what was possible in movie costumes.

Photography by Andrew Liptak / The Verge

Update August 10th, 11:40AM ET: Updated to add Tested’s video of his walk through San Diego Comic-Con.