Meet the Hollywood Prop Designer Making NASA's Spacesuits

He was so good at designing fake spacesuits that he was hired to do the real thing.

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Sep 2 2015, 6:00am

All photos by the author

Chris Gilman made a name for himself as a Hollywood prop designer, specialising in space-related movie props and effects for films like Deep Impact, Star Trek, and Armageddon. His company, Global Effects Inc, became notorious in the industry for their unparalleled ability to manufacture hyperrealistic space suits – the kind that mirrored actual spacegear so well that it gained the attention of actual aerospace companies.

When Gilman was tapped by NASA to design a space suit for the agency, he launched Orbital Outfitters, a company for designing and manufacturing real pressure suits for orbit. Now he divides his time between making space suits for reel and reality.

At 54, Gilman seems as though he would be as comfortable in a blue-collar auto shop as he would at the heights of an ivory tower, the sort of person who could effortlessly reassemble a car engine while discoursing on the Carolingian Dynasty. I met him in the back of his workshop, where he was deeply immersed in detail work on a medieval suit of armour (another Global Effects specialty). After shaking my hand, he gestured to the gauntlet he had just been working on, relating the similarities between his precision replica and the actual armour worn by 14th century knights.

The workshop is lined with precision replicas of every space suit used by NASA since the start of the Apollo program, and littered with fragments of what seems to be the sets of every movie ever made. Gilman's office is like the literary equivalent of the chaos beyond its doors, lined with books on every conceivable topic relating to space suits, armour, and special effects, in addition to innumerable historical artefacts which he has undoubtedly used as models for his props.

"Check this out," he said, handing me something that looked like a hose. "Dave Scott's communications cable. That thing's been on the moon."

Gilman's dad owned a welding company and worked on the Apollo life support systems. As a child, Gilman spent a lot of time in his father's machine shop and learned to weld by the time he was 12. He figured he would become a machine welder too, until he watched his father's business nearly fold after the end of the Apollo program.

"I had thought that was kind of scary – working your whole life only to find out that the area you're really good at has no work because the economy changed around," Gilman recalled. "But I remembered reading in school that even in the Great Depression era people still went to the movies. I was [already] into magic and that got me really into makeup effects and stunt work."

"In the movie industry, props and costumes can be complete shit, as long as they look good on camera. I thought to myself, Fuck that! and started making my own stuff." - Chris Gilman

Gilman worked as a stuntman in Tucson, Arizona for his last year-and-a-half of high school, and, at age 19, he headed to Tinseltown to try his luck with stunt work and prop design. The industry wasn't at all what he expected.

"What I didn't know is that Hollywood is the land of bullshit. When I first got out here, I was aghast at some of the techniques they were using," he said. "In the movie industry, props and costumes can be complete shit, as long as they look good on camera and work. So I thought to myself, Fuck that! and started making my own stuff."

Gilman's entrepreneurialism led him to start Global Effects in 1986. By 1991, he had received a nod from the Academy for his development of the Cool Suit system, designed to keep stuntmen and actors cool while wearing bulky costumes. In a city saturated with prop designers and effect artists, Gilman found his niche making hyper-realistic space suits in the mid-90s, after noticing how poorly most movies replicated astronauts' gear.

"I wanted to do space suits because when I would see space suits in movies, they were essentially a canvas jumpsuit with some fittings on it and a fishbowl. Real suits are really complex," said Gilman.

Chris Gilman in his workshop

Gilman makes all of the suit components on site, and his ability to manufacture suits virtually indistinguishable from the real deal quickly attracted the attention of various aerospace companies. Word about the Hollywood guy who was capable of undercutting multinational aerospace companies spread quickly, until one day Gilman got an unexpected call from a professor at Berkeley, who wanted to know if Gilman would be interested in helping to design a suit for NASA.

"I thought it was a friend of mine busting my balls," Gilman told me.

It wasn't. NASA wanted a suit prototyped in two months, which even Gilman acknowledged was a "ridiculously short amount of time to do a mockup." He agreed to the challenge anyway, which was essentially to redesign the torso section of a space suit so that it would fit those with smaller bodies, such as female astronauts.

Gilman's redesign of the suit's torso evidently impressed NASA, as they later contracted him to build a real component for its Advanced Suit Lab. The component was a fully-functional helmet adapter, which has been used for testing on experimental suits.

"I seem to be qualified to make real parts for NASA, but not fake suits for Disney." - Chris Gilman

Despite the fact that Gilman was beginning to gain credibility among those actually putting people in space, it didn't count for much in Hollywood. He says he met with the producers of Mission to Mars several times, but in the end they contracted someone else for the props. Then he says he was passed over by John Favreau when it came to designing Iron Man's suit and again by Christopher Nolan for Interstellar (for which he notes that Nolan "spent all this time and energy researching space travel and black holes, but the fucking suits look like costumes").

"I found that really funny," he said. "I seem to be qualified to make real parts for NASA, but not fake suits for Disney."

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Still, Gilman realised his experience and ability to produce functioning parts at Global Effects had opened another avenue for him – producing suits for the burgeoning NewSpace industry. He founded Orbital Outfitters in 2006, a company dedicated to designing full-scale vehicle mockups and functioning space suits for NewSpace companies like XCOR and SpaceX.

Orbital Outfitters sits next to Global Effects, through a small door to the rear of the facility. It's something of a cross between the orderly chaos of an architect's drawing room and the sterility of a surgeon's operating theatre: Mannequins decked out in various Orbital prototypes lean haphazardly against the wall; drawings, prototype helmets, and a device meant to test how well the joints in the suits hold up to pressure litter the tables.

Gilman gestures to one of the suits worn by the mannequins that Orbital had designed as a consultant for SpaceX. "The designer for Oblivion designed this," he told me. The suit looked far more sleek and cool than anything worn by astronauts today.

"Elon wanted something sexier and cooler," said Gilman, shrugging. Unlike with government-funded ventures like NASA, the NewSpace industry is more focused on the "sex appeal" of the suit. In its contact with Orbital Outfitters, SpaceX stipulated that the suits that were being designed for them need to look "badass," aesthetic philosophy that OO tries to apply to all its suits.

"Orbital Outfitters is Armani meets Ferrari," said Gilman. "We are fashion meets technical functioning. We look at the emotion of the thing almost before the technical side of the thing."

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Part of Gilman's efforts to sell his suits to NewSpace pioneers involves persuading them that the suit is just as much a part of the launch vehicle as the rockets. Designing a launch vehicle without considering how the suit will play into it can often lead to less-than-desirable results, which can be avoided if they are designed in tandem. This was the approach taken by Orbital's latest client XCOR, who had commissioned Orbital to do cabin prototype designs for their Lynx suborbital craft side by side with the design of the suit that the astronauts will be wearing inside the cabin.

"If it weren't for the suit, you couldn't go out into space. So the saying used to be that the suit makes the man, but as far we're concerned, it's the suit that takes the man," he said. Although Orbital is a relatively new player in the NewSpace race, Gilman only sees opportunity for expansion in the future as the race continues to become increasingly lucrative for those who choose to compete. For now, things look promising: In addition to their contract with XCOR, Orbital Outfitters broke ground on a new manufacturing facility and altitude chamber in Texas last October.

While it might be a while before Gilman's suits see orbital action, if you ever want a glimpse of what the fashionable future of space will look like, you needn't go further than your local movie theatre.

Follow Daniel Oberhaus on Twitter.

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