Adam Savage’s Quest to Build His Own Spacesuit

For the MythBusters star, attention to detail is everything

Adam Savage poses heroically in his spacesuit, which appears white, bulbous, and dusty despite never going to space. His face, wearing glasses, is illuminated behind the transparent plastic bubble that forms most of the helmet.
Adam Savage spent five weeks building two impressive replicas of NASA’s newest spacesuit design, the xEMU (Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit). Adam Savage

If you were one of the 20 million viewers who watched the TV series “MythBusters,” then Adam Savage needs no introduction. As co-host of the hit show for 17 years, Savage—who is a special effects designer and builder—reinvigorated public interest in science education by gleefully using the scientific method to blow up (sometimes literally) popular urban legends. You’ve also likely seen Savage’s handiwork as a model builder in several hit films, including Galaxy Quest, The Matrix Reloaded, and Star Wars: Attack of the Clones.

Savage’s latest endeavor is a website and YouTube channel named Tested, which he describes as a “playground for makers and curious minds.”

Air & Space Quarterly is thrilled that Savage—who is a board member at the National Air and Space Museum—offered to write our inaugural guest column, a new department for which we’ll be asking people in the entertainment industry, the literary world, academia, and other fields to write on topics and trends about which they are passionate.

In this article, Savage shares the story of one of the most challenging—and rewarding—tasks he ever undertook: building a wearable replica of the new NASA spacesuit that the next generation of astronauts will use on the moon.

I’ve been obsessed with spacesuits my whole life. The first costume I ever made was a spacesuit—informed by the fact that the Baskin-Robbins five-gallon empty cardboard ice cream tub fit neatly over my seven-year-old head. Since then, I’ve made faithful replicas of historical suits, as well as traded, built, and bought suits from movies distant and recent.

Finally, in 2021, I decided to design and build my own spacesuit—from scratch. This project was a first for me. The process of conceiving, engineering, constructing, troubleshooting, and successfully wearing my own spacesuit (at a Con, not in space!) was a deeper and more educational journey than I expected.

Since Savage would be wearing his spacesuit, he chose materials that were both lightweight and resilient, such as Baltic birch plywood (seen here framing the suit’s upper torso and openings.) Adam Savage

The inspiration for my suit came from NASA’s newest suit design, the xEMU (Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit). A variation of this basic design is being developed for the forthcoming Artemis moon missions. The xEMU is an interchangeable, hard-soft combination, all-purpose moonsuit with some spectacular advantages over traditional spacesuit designs—and some brand-new challenges.

For starters, the xEMU doesn’t have a helmet. Instead, it has a dome that fits over the wearer’s head and locks to the extended Hard Upper Torso. The arms attach to the torso via a pair of large bearings centered on a key part of the wearer’s shoulder. Most of these parts can be interchanged to fit different astronaut body types, ranging in height from around 4’ 10’’ to 6’ 4”.

The complex curves and angles of the xEMU’s Hard Upper Torso make it more difficult to fabricate than earlier, less complex spacesuit designs. Adam Savage

My goal was to build a model of the xEMU—something that was more akin to a film costume than actual moonwear. My spacesuit wouldn’t be pressurized, for example. Still, it needed to be more than a hollow shell if it were to look and feel like the real thing. I planned on building lots of internal structure. But, as I soon discovered, fitting these spacesuits for maximum mobility and comfort under the harsh conditions for which they are designed to operate is a very difficult engineering challenge.

That’s why, before I could even begin building the spacesuit, I had to first understand it.

I started by making detailed drawings of everything I could think of. There were countless bits and bobs to cover, from the parts I’d include in the electrical system to each one of the joints and how they’d be attached. Drawing every single piece, sometimes many times, helped me to anticipate the hard parts of the build. This is also a problem-solving technique for me, putting the thing I’m making into my head. Once it’s in there—and it can take a while—I can really see how each piece I’m making fits within the whole. Then it becomes a dance, though, thankfully, I wouldn’t be dancing alone. I hired costume builder, professor, and genius Christine Knobel to do the soft work on the suit. I brought in animator, filmmaker, and master machinist Brett Foxwell to work on the metal bits.

Savage went all-in on his sketch of the shoulder assembly. By providing more mobility, the designers of the xEMU spacesuit hope to reduce the number of shoulder injuries that have plagued previous generations of astronauts. Adam Savage

Since I intended to wear this spacesuit, both durability and light weight were vital factors in building it—and one can often be achieved only at the expense of the other. Plywood is one of the most forgiving materials, so I used Baltic birch ply for its dimensional stability and overall rigidity. Normal plywood usually has only a few layers, often with voids between them. Half-inch Baltic birch has more than double the layers and is perfectly solid all the way through. This makes it highly rigid and dimensionally stable even when cut thin. Baltic birch also allowed me to change parameters on the fly.

I made profiles of all the openings on the real NASA xEMU: the arms, the head oval, and the entryway, as well as the waist. Then I used more plywood to hold the openings in an orientation that seemed to tick all the boxes when I put the suit on myself: my arms stuck out enough—my head too—and I had the range of motion I was hoping for. So, I fiberglassed it.

Like the actual xEMU, I wanted to use shoulder bearings. I found the range of bearings I needed online, up to 18 inches in the waist. The bearings weren’t expensive, mostly because mine didn’t have to be airtight.

Next came the head. A friend in the astronaut corps told me that, in the real xEMU, a manifold blows air across the top of the dome, which keeps it from fogging. I built a system that uses twin computer fans to draw air through a HEPA filter at the bottom of the backpack and push it into the visor. It works great!

Perhaps the trickiest engineering of the whole project was the visor. That’s because the xEMU visor is not only an oval bubble—a hard shape to work with—but is, in fact, two oval bubbles, one nested about a half inch inside the other. I had a bunch of oval bubbles blown by a plastic hemisphere manufacturing company, and was able to carefully arrange, mark, and cut two domes that fit beautifully one inside the other. Jen Schachter, a former shop assistant and whiz with computer numerical control routers, took on the task of making the Delrin plastic neck rings that would interface the two domes to the upper torso. Still, the entire process was a finicky and exhaustive bit of measuring, iterating, test-cutting, and finishing. Schachter did a spectacular job. The finished dome is one of my favorite replicas.

With most of the rigid structures coming together, Christine Knobel began draping and patterning the many, many weird and different pieces of the suit. She and I went on quite an improvisatory journey. She really loved all the variegated textures of the outer white thermal micrometeoroid garments astronauts have worn since the early Apollo era.

Knobel brought a real sense of narrative to the suit. 

The intricate adjustments required to obtain full motion for his arms were a “lesson in how truly delicate the fitting process must be,” says Savage. Adam Savage

She started with the shoulders, which required a thorny bit of construction to achieve the right look. Before we got too far with covering the arms, I hit a problem. I found that I couldn’t move my arms nearly as far as I’d hoped. NASA runs their xEMU through a set of specific arm exercises, and I’d wanted to meet those standards. Clearly, I’d gotten something wrong.

After sleeping on it, I came in and sawed almost through the fiberglass around both arm holes, leaving only a small tab at the top. I donned the suit and moved my arms. All it took to get full motion from my arms was tucking the bottoms of the arm rings in about 3/8-inch toward my body. That was a lesson in how truly delicate the fitting process for the real suits must be.

While the arms were being built, I began figuring out what my head-mounted lighting unit would look like. The chrome pipe-looking thingy on the right side of my backpack is my aesthetic North Star. It’s a beacon, literally and figuratively. It came about because I’d hit an aesthetic wall with how to dress out the suit. There were decisions I couldn’t make until I knew the narrative. I needed to understand the why of the suit, and then the aesthetics would follow.

Sometimes, when I hit a creative barrier like this, I’ll make a list of what I actually do know for sure. I did that here. I knew I was making what I’d call a “working” moonsuit. My mindset wasn’t that of an explorer, but that of a construction crew. If I was a supervisor on the moon and I had people out in the field, I’d want to look out the window and easily spot my crew. I thought of the lights on factory floors that indicate the state of the machines at work. I had an idea of a blue strobe light, so I built it. The moment I plugged it in and it started flashing, everything came together. I now understood the narrative of the suit.

One of the most pressing problems of moon life will be regolith. Moon dust. Terrible stuff. Picture the finest dust composed of minuscule razor sharp, glass-hard burrs. Regolith is bad for your lungs, awful for air seals, and horrifying for machinery. When you see Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit on display in the National Air and Space Museum’s Destination Moon gallery, you’re also looking at traces of the moon because lunar regolith is still embedded in the suit’s outer fibers and in the stainless steel covering the boots.

The rear entry of the xEMU suit is, I think, one of its most exciting features. (The rear-entry suit concept isn’t new, however. The Russian Orlan suit, which can be put on in minutes, was first put in service in 1977.) One of the design’s benefits is lunar regolith mitigation. That’s because the suit can be mounted on the outside of the enclosure moon denizens would live in. They can climb into the suit through its backpack, seal the hatch behind them, and begin a day’s work on the lunar surface. When it’s time to come home, they do the reverse and re-enter the habitat via the same opening. They don’t even need an airlock and, best of all, the moon dust stays outside. It’s brilliant.

Savage predicts this spacesuit will one day be worn by Lunar Regolith Mitigation Crews doing the dirty work of keeping the moon colony dust-free. Adam Savage

But, I get ahead of myself. Here’s the rest of my story: Twenty years from now, the most badass team of workers on the moon are the folks who clean up moon dust. It’s vital for the survival of the colony. But it’s filthy and definitely not a glamorous job. So, they’d get old tech to work with. That’s why I stayed very close to the current design envelope for the xEMU. In 20 years that suit will be an antique in moon years, so they’d give them to the LRMCs—the Lunar Regolith Mitigation Crews. Because their suits were originally white, but now ludicrously filthy, they’d call themselves the “Dust Bunnies.” (Kind of like how painters call their white disposable coveralls “bunny suits.”)

Once I understood that story, all the aesthetic decisions fell into place. Overall, the suits (we made two of them) took about five weeks.

I’m fortunate to count several astronauts as close friends, and I’m constantly learning from them how much incredible engineering goes into the suits they wear. We tend to think of spacesuits as a long-solved problem, but they are still very much works-in-progress. If space is to be for everyone, tomorrow’s suits must accommodate a wide range of humanity. And that thrills me. 

Adam Savage is a special effects designer and fabricator, and former co-host of “MythBusters.” His latest project is Tested, a website and YouTube channel. He is a member of the National Air and Space Museum Board.

This article is from the Spring 2024 issue of Air & Space Quarterly, the National Air and Space Museum's signature magazine that explores topics in aviation and space, from the earliest moments of flight to today. Explore the full issue.

Want to receive ad-free hard-copies of Air & Space QuarterlyJoin the Museum's National Air and Space Society to subscribe.