When we met Adam Savage on a Friday night, the Mythbusters co-host was excited after spending much of the day at Johnson Space Center hanging out with engineers and technicians in the robotics and advanced space suit labs. Savage was visiting Houston to promote his new exhibit – The Explosive Exhibition – at Space Center Houston. But during his interview with Ars, he was just as happy to talk about space. “This is absolutely something for me,’ he explained, taking off his fedora.
Savage spent 14 years building and destroying things on the hit TV show Mythbusters. He was driven from an early age to work with his hands and explore the limits of the human experience through testing, failing and trying again. In this he feels some kinship with NASA, which he characterized as ‘a ritualized organization for failure analysis’. Both Mythbusters and the space agency, he said, is trying to play out all the ways that something can’t guarantee overall safety.
“It feels very simple to me because when I look at NASA hardware, I can see that people have built it,” Savage said. “It’s different than when I’m in a modern car. Most modern things are made by robots and machines. But there’s a tactile element of NASA hardware that’s super evocative. I wasn’t obsessed with NASA until I met NASA scientists Mythbusters, and I realized that they treated me like a peer.” The TV show has visited NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, several times to use the facility’s wind tunnels and iconic Hangar One facility. They were welcomed with open arms.
Savage also likes the idea of building devices and materials necessary to survive the harsh environment of space. “I’m addicted [to] and obsessed with armor,” he said. “And as far as I’m concerned, roaming in your own atmosphere is about the highest level of armor there can be. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately because I like all kinds of armor. I collect it, be it SWAT armor or medieval armor, and that’s when I realized the fascination with spacesuits is just a different kind of armor.
We can understand how a builder of things would love an agency that builds really cool things. But does space exploration matter beyond building cool stuff? And if so, how would an expert communicator like Savage share that with the public? While NASA enjoys broad public support, that hasn’t translated into more funding for the space agency, which receives just under 0.5 percent of the federal budget. Surveys regularly show that the public believes the federal government spends about the right amount, in balance with the government’s other priorities.
“It’s a fantastic question,” he said. “But I really don’t have a good answer because I never really thought about that.” Savage then said that he believes NASA advances the human condition because it fuels our desires to explore and learn the nature of things. The space agency helps us understand the universe around us, our place in it, and, through activities aboard the International Space Station, how we can use space to do things. But most importantly, he said, NASA and private space companies are laying the groundwork for a back-up plan. “While the chances of our extinction are infinitesimal, if we succeed in colonizing a second sphere in this solar system, they are zero,” he said.
The space agency and Mythbusters also have a common goal: inspiration. When Mythbusters created The Explosive Exhibition five years ago, Savage and co-host Jamie Hyneman made sure to bring many of the props and equipment they built for their TV show. Savage gets nostalgic when he walks by and sees all these things again because he and Hyneman, along with a few helpers, built them all. He likes to show the process of building everything on television because he wants the audience to know they can do the same.
“My goal is for them to see how everything was clearly built by some guys,” Savage said. “It’s not super sophisticated stuff going on. But it’s really cool, and maybe a kid will look at that and ask his mom or dad to help him make it out of plywood. We recommend starting with the Flatus ignition seat.
Frame image by Lee Hutchinson