Last year at Halloween, Dirk Schoellner tweeted a shot of one of his sons dressed up for Halloween – as the James Webb Space Telescope costume. We, of course loved it, so the Schoellners did a tutorial for us about how they built it. This was not their first year crafting fancy space-themed costumes. Nor has this year proved different – so Dirk wrote up another blog for us. This one is on some of the experiments they’ve done to make their space-themed costumes awesome. It should go without saying that the techniques below require parental supervision!
Take it away again, Dirk!
NASA is awesome, and costumes are awesome, so the combination is just natural. With that solid foundation as a jumping off point, our family has made a tradition out of reaching high for homemade Halloween costumes. The kids settle on themes in September, and then their design work begins. Through suggestions and occasionally excessive enthusiasm, we encourage the kids to come up with prototype drawings and think through how a realistic design of the costume will come together. In search of better space costumes, we have created smoking rockets, a scale model JWST, and Curiosity with a stowaway alien.
This year, the kids were inspired by the vast array of early space-race artifacts of the Kansas Cosmosphere, with the final costume decision settling on Sputnik 1 and a Vanguard rocket. With Project Vanguard’s checkered history, this year we chose to chase after what makes rockets so exciting – smoke, flames, and explosions.
We have found that illumination and basic electronics often sets a costume apart from the crowd, as well as making children easy to find in said crowd. A tried and true way to add glow to any outfit is with traditional glow sticks. The Sputnik radio antenna’s consisted simply of long yellow glow-sticks, reinforced with plastic tubing to add rigidity (only one antenna shown during assembly). The remaining costume couldn’t be simpler – styrofoam hemispheres spray-painted metallic gold, and the addition of the authentic Sputnik “beep” downloaded to an iPhone and placed on repeat.
Several years’ costumes have relied on electro-luminescent wiring – flexible, glowing EL wire can easily be attached to costumes to creating lit features, spell out words, or literally illustrate the costume concept. Integral to the design process, the kids have learned early that while with risk comes reward, risk can also lead to “catastrophe”. Last year’s ode to Werner Von Braun included a smoking rocket. In order to generate smoke, we experimented with dry ice, EL wire, and laser pointers. Dry ice is not as dangerous as liquid nitrogen, but it still requires a reasonable number of precautions, most notably that it should not come into direct contact with your child’s unprotected skin. Luckily, the choice of rocket scientist outfit provided several layers of protection, but we still had to limit accidental contact with other trick-or-treaters. Using mesh screen (with very small holes) we created a metal ball to contain the dry ice, which we could then insert inside a plastic rocket created from old two-liter soda bottles. This took a fair amount of trial and error to make sure that the rocket had adequate airflow to sublimate the dry ice to make smoke without risking having chunks of dry ice fall on unsuspecting trick or treaters.
The major limitation of dry ice smoke was that it had to be viewed in a well-lit area. Since Halloween involves roaming through the dark, we improvised our own portable lighting with red EL wire and laser pointers inside the rocket pointing down through the smoke. Illumination worked beautifully during the test runs at home and through the first five minutes of trick-or-treating; then the dry ice dropped the temperature of the batteries enough to cut the current flow to the lighting. Just as NASA engineers know the importance of temperature testing electronics, our children will not forget the lessons about battery capacity versus temperature learned that day.
Learning from our mistakes, this year we turned to LEDs for the Vanguard rocket tail. The body of the rocket included our traditional go-to EL wire for the larger logos, but after testing several concepts, we found that directional LEDs created more of a flame effect than EL wire. A quick trip to the local fabric store yielded reflective red knit cloth with a black backing that shimmered nicely when illuminated.
The base of the costume took shape when we cut cloth flames and mounted them on a poster-board rocket body shell. To create billows of smoke, black mesh netting was gathered together at irregular intervals. Gathering the mesh, which required neither precision nor straight lines, offered a great chance for the kids to learn how to use a sewing machine. In order to produce flickering flames, together we built a small timing circuit to pulse about 30% of the LEDs, and the kids soldered the remainder of the LEDs into a parallel array that remained lit and could be powered with a simple 9v battery. The final effect, with the combination of both sets of LEDs placed in between layers of fabric, reflected quite nicely in the dark.
The key ingredients to fun spacey Halloween costumes include early planning and a willingness to let early designs fail. The discussions of costume ideas that often originate at the dinner table in the summer are half the fun.
All images in this post courtesy of the Schoellner family.