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SPACE COWBOYS: Chris Gillman

The designer talks about making spacesuits that outdo NASA's best

By Craig D. Reid     August 03, 2000

We've seen tons of sci-fi films set in outer space, where our brave, spacesuit-clad explorers visit far off places, battle alien beings or even get lost. Each of these shows feature some kind of spacesuit that you know a real astronaut could never actually wear on the real moon or during a real space walk. However, when I visited the set of Space Cowboys, my mind was blown away again by how authentic the spacesuits looked, right down to the real 24-carat gold sun visors attached inside the space helmets. The mastermind behind the spacesuits is designer Chris Gillman, who sat down with Fandom to offer an astute lesson on aerospace technology and explain the origins of his designs.

QUESTION: HOW MUCH DID YOU KNOW BEFORE YOU STARTED THIS?

Gillman: Enough that NASA hired me to design and build a suit for them. I own a company called Global Effects. We did specialty wardrobes for Armageddon, From Earth to the Moon and Deep Impact. When researching Deep Impact, we replicated a MACH, an experimental suit NASA is developing for planetary use, which uses a mechanical joint to cut down on the amount of decompression time it takes to go from the space shuttle suit to the shuttle suit. During that research, NASA become aware of my engineering experience and that we replicated things so well, and asked if I'd submit a design for re-designing the upper torso of their suit for fitting fifth percentile individuals, 5' 4' and under. Doing that research, we got the information for the current shuttle suits, which we built for the show.

We also built the launch re-entry suits, the orange ones, nicknamed as pumpkin suits. Unlike the APOLLO program that had one suit for all three jobs--energy protection for take-off, landing and docking; space walking for retrieving film canisters; and moon walking--the current shuttle team doesn't need a suit like that because not everybody goes outside into space. The first two shuttle missions used modified SR-71 Spy Plane suits called S-1030 suits, then after Challenger, there was a review of the emergency escape situation, so they switched to a partial pressure suit. And three years ago, they changed to full pressure suits, which means the entire body is pressurized instead of just the upper torso and head. Since the helmet hasn't changed, NASA has all these orange suits for training but not many helmets for training, so we've been asked to submit bids for creating training helmets for that.

AND THIS SUIT HERE? [INDICATING A LARGE WHITE SUIT RESTING ON A STAND]

This is Clint's External Mobility Unit suits (EMI). Real ones weigh 380 pounds, have 19,000 parts and cost $10.4 million each. Our replicas have 1,200 parts and are cheaper. [Laughs] Most of that weight is life support. In space, you're 260 degree below zero facing away from the sun and 257 degree above zero facing the sun. You need lots of thermal protection and protection against micro-meteorites. A piece of straw traveling at 300 mph, the speed needed to stay in orbit, can penetrate through a fence post. A shuttle travels at 19,000 mph, so a flake of paint traveling at that speed can cause major damage to you, so the outer layer of suit is interwoven Teflon reinforced with Kevlar. But a number 10 nut can easily penetrate through and is more damaging than a bullet. So that's a danger in space.

Our suits are lighter and we used carbon fiber like in Formula One cars--vacuum bag it to condense the fiber and get rid of excess resin, which makes it stronger, more flexible and light weight. We did the same thing with their backpacks. Our helmets are identical to NASA's and the same for our Snoopy caps, which are called CEAs, Communication Ear Assemblies, that hold the earphones and mics. This black plastic represents the pressure dome inside the helmet and this is the 24-carat gold visor used for sun protection. Gold is the only metal that can be hand pounded thin enough that you can see through it. With the interior light on [he clicks it on] you can see inside the helmet. With outside lights on [he clicks it on], you can't. A lot of advanced protection on sunglasses come from aerospace technology.

WHY THE MIRROR IN THE PALM OF THE WRIST OF THE GLOVE?

[Gillman points inside the helmet, where the controls are written backwards] This way they can read the controls inside their helmets.

WHAT IS THAT PECULIAR LOOKING SUIT FOR? [I POINT AT A STRANGE JUMP SUIT HANGING ON THE WALL]

In 1991, I won an Academy Award for developing a cool suit more sophisticated than NASA's. NASA uses round tygon tubing woven in the suit. The problem is, you can only run tubing so close together and you have a round surface pressing against a flat body. Like a Coke can on a flat table, one percent of the can touches the table. Plus, the tubing is a serpentining path, so if you scrunch off the suit in one area, it shuts down the entire grid. The astronauts also complain about these tube suits because if you lie on an uneven surface for too long a time, you get sore spots. So when they're on their backs for four hours waiting for launch, they're lying on these tubes getting sore. At launch, under 2G's, it's worse.

Taking a shower is more effective in cooling the body than standing in front of an AC. So we're circulating cold fluid through these channels, and ultra sonically wield this vest together to create little openings much like a radiator. Those wiggly lines--it's an open grid. The fluid flows in, across and returns. If I scrunch off the top of this vest, it still flows through the rest of vest. NASA is now looking at these suits.

WHY DID YOU MAKE ONE IN THE FIRST PLACE?

I made it for my best friend, Kevin Peter Hall, the guy who was Predator. When he said he was going to Mexico in that suit I said, 'You'll die in that. You need a cool suit.' So I built one, and took it over to Stan Winston's. They complained that it hadn't been designed to wear under the Predator suit. We put it on him and they complained, 'See, see, on the chest. It's poking out.' I said it was doing that before the cool suit. They said, 'No, no.' I took it off and put Kevin back in the Predator suit without the cool suit. Stan walks in and says, 'See it pokes out a bit due to that cool suit.' Hello. They never complained about it again.

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