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A7L Props (Huntsville, AL)

Written : Zippy

Wayne Neumaier (A7L Props), a cosplayer, teacher, cancer survivor, and a veritable rocket scientist by day, had just seen the announcement of the Artemis II crew, the second scheduled mission of NASA’s Artemis program and the first scheduled crewed mission of NASA’s Orion spacecraft, within an hour or more prior to our interview. Of course I was curious to learn what it was like to be on the inside looking out at this news and the recent developments he’s been a part of in the space program.

Neumaier replied “Yes it is really surreal. I looked up to the people who were on the Apollo program and the people who solved issues [like with Apollo 13] and the shuttle, and now I have a small seat at the table. I have parts on a moon rocket. There’s people who will be going to the Air and Space Museum and seeing the displays on the Artemis missions including the artifacts, boosters, and stuff, and a lot of it will be next to the Saturn Five exhibit. So yeah that’s very surreal. That’s where I’m at in my life now between having had cancer, having to deal with a plague, having parts on a moon rocket, and now I’m literally building costume items for NASA. I actually have to go to the Johnson Space Center next week to do a test 50x CMU mock-up for the Lunar Lander development. So yeah it’s just all been interesting where I’m at.”

Interesting is an understatement for Neumaier’s life, as he took a true childhood dream and actually made it into a career path that so many of us stopped dreaming about even before we got out of school. Neumaier succeeded though, and he recalled a specific, albeit fuzzy, childhood memory he believes really spurred him on his journey.

Neumaier said, “I think I was walking with my dad outside one day, and we were looking at the moon, and he said,”Hey, if you work hard you can get there.” And I’ve just always had this fascination with not just space, though space has always been the core of my interest in science, but [science in general]. It’s almost like magic. Like people who grew up with Harry Potter, or any shows like that about being a wizard, when you have science it’s almost that because it’s like “Hey, I have like, you know, if I hook up these wires, lights turn on, or, you know, we mix these two chemicals, they change colors, or create heat or even cold,” and just the idea of knowing this was just always fascinating to me. So I’ve just always been completely fascinated with science and engineering and this idea of “Hey I can make that.”

Neumaier was voracious in his appetite to learn more as well, and he would watch many of the beloved 90s science programs on TV, and he would read all the books he could as well on space and science. 

“As a kid, I was always reading,” Neumaier replied. “When I would go to the library, I would always get every book I could on space travel, the shuttle, the Apollo program, and the planets. I grew up with Bill Nye the Science Guy and Beakman’s World. I also had all those grade school levels, experiments you can do at home too.”

One day Neumaier’s family bought him a model rocket, and that took his passion for space and rocketry to the next level.

Neumaier recalled, “When I was 11 my parents bought me my first model rocket, which they didn’t even know it flew. They thought it was just like a static toy. But it was one of those ones with the gunpowder propellant and the parachute, and I built that [and afterwards] that’s where all my money went. I didn’t have video games and stuff like that. I would just keep building more and more rocket kits, and then I started designing my own. I eventually ended up in the first Team America Rocketry Challenge, which was a national rocket competition among high school students. We even made it to the finals, and the rocket [we flew I had] tattooed on my arm.

Of course like so many kids, Neumaier’s dream was to go to space, but his dream took a different turn after an injury.

Neumaier said, “I’ve always been fascinated with space travel and I wanted to be an astronaut, but I messed up my eye really badly when I was 18. So the closest I can get is to build the rockets for [the missions].”

Fortunately for Neumaier not only did this path give him a career, but it led him to fully delve into the world of cosplaying and building his own unique cosplays.

Neumaier stated, “When rocketry started becoming my job, I knew that I needed a new creative outlet. Where I went to school, there was a costume shop. This is right when the Star Wars prequels were out and I saw Jango Fett, and I found this website called The Dented Helmet and I made a Jango Fett costume for Halloween.”

Neumaier continued, “I just really loved the whole challenge and making it and the response I got [while wearing it], and it just kind of snowballed from there. I was topping myself off every Halloween and then eventually when I got my job in aerospace engineering, I had disposable income and I started building for conventions. So both things have just grown and grown.”

Since then Neumaier’s builds have become increasingly elaborate, and likewise they have begun to gain recognition at the conventions he attends and across the internet. One that gained a lot of attention in particular is Neumaier’s build of astronaut Captain Jim Lovell’s suit from the Apollo 13 mission.

Neumaier recalled, “This was 10 years ago now back when I first started getting into the hobby, and everything was just built to plans. So you want to go build a proton pack from Ghostbusters? You go to the GBFans.com. You can find the plans, all the measurements, and see how to build it. If you want to build Boba Fett then you can go to the 501st or The Dented Helmet, and there’s instructions. It’s the equivalent of nowadays if there’s a prop you want to make there’s a 90% chance you’re just gonna find a free file somewhere anyway which is fine. I love my Ghostbusters stuff, but a lot of my new friends at the time included David Reamer with Double Zero Effects and Harrison Krix with Volpin Props and they were making all this state of the art custom work. I was trying to make a name for myself and I wanted to show I was deserving to be their friend and to earn my place at that table.“

Fortunately Neumaier had already begun the ground work for his Captain Lovell suit thanks to learned expertise he had acquired while building his previous cosplays. It also didn’t hurt that he had a drive to compete that pushed him further.

“I was also trying to compete [with my cosplays],” Neumaier remarked. “By the time we built the moon suit I had already built Big Daddy from BioShock, which got an honorable mention at DragonCon. My Dalek had won as well. The following year I won Best Sci Fi and the Dragon Con Masquerade. So then I’m trying to figure out how do I beat my last project? I always wanted to make the moon suit, as it was always a dream project of mine. Who doesn’t want to wear a spacesuit? And a couple of things lined up. I was building a few Deadmaus heads, and I had just made vacuum formed visors for a Halo ODST suit. So I was starting to get competent with molding and casting, and I thought “okay, now’s the time to build it.”

Neumaier began feeling the pressure, and he was worried about two elements in particular with this build.

Neumaier stated, “So part of [my concern] was the technical challenge of how do I pull this off. But the other thing is [while] I like my fictional stuff [as well, as a] big fan of Star Wars and Ghostbusters, I also know there are more people who can name the four K/DA pop stars, but they can’t name two people who walked on the moon. So I want to bring this to life because this is important.”

Neumaier continued, “So basically I spent a year working on the suit. The hardest part is the jumpsuit because it has all these like bellows and padding, and I suck at sewing. So trying to get a jumpsuit that looks halfway decent took time. I think I built seven of them before I finally settled on the one that’s in all the pictures, but I still am not happy with it at all. So we have the jumpsuit and then I felt like the boots, the backpack, the connectors, and everything else kind of fell into place rather quickly.”

“When I made my A7L, I had to base everything off photographs and historical documentation. I wanted to improve on my next build, and I thought the best way would be to get up close and personal with a real one. So I showed the museum the pictures of my A7L replica, explained what I wanted to do, and after filling out several forms I was able to examine actual Apollo hardware to take measurements and see how everything actually went together on the real thing! I don’t know if I ever would have been able to access real Apollo hardware if I hadn’t made my suit.”

 Neumaier admitted “I actually cried the first time I put the whole thing on because it made me feel like I was an astronaut. The suit was a HUGE hit at the conventions I took it too, and while I have many great encounter stories with it, the coolest thing to happen was receiving a letter from Jim Lovell HIMSELF complementing the suit! I don’t know how many other cosplayers get contacted by the characters they are portraying.  The suit was eventually sold to a museum for a traveling exhibit, and while I have made other spacesuits, including Mark Watney from The Martian, the A7L still holds a special place in my heart.”

I was curious whether Neumaier’s work on aerospace projects with his day job was in any way similar to his cosplay projects, and he clarified there were certainly distinctions to his approach.

Neumaier replied, “So with my aerospace work I have to think about the whole program before we start. We have to think about where we’re going to buy everything, what the schedule is, what our deadline is, and how are we going to document all this? When I do a costume, I do the approach of [solving[ one problem at a time. And usually it’s two things: can I think of a solution for this and what am I going to learn from this? So for example, on my Kylo Ren I did the Rise of Skywalker version, and the big challenge was how do I make all the cracks in the helmet light up. I went ahead and tested LED wire, [and I] got a couple of different voltage levels to see what the right brightness would be. Then [I have to] figure out where can I get the cape? The lightsaber? Can I get the electronics? What solution do I have with that?”

Nuemairer walked me through one of his most recent builds to demonstrate further how his cosplay process works and his learned skills came to play.

( photo: dtjaaaam )

“[When creating] Emperor Belos (The Owl House), which is how most people know me right now, it was the same idea,” Neumaier noted. “I saw the character and I’m like okay, the staff I have a general idea how to do it. I can 3d model the staff, and that’s in my skill level profusion, and I can die the orb. The helmet was an excuse to say “Hey, I have this life cast of my head. I think I can clay sculpt it.” So it was a challenge of [figure out] can I actually clay sculpt the helmet? So most of my projects there’s always at least one [element where it’s] the first time I’ve ever tried this.”

I was curious whether Nuemaier prioritizes form vs function, and he brought up an important aspect of cosplay that seems obvious but is so often under discussed, and at times overlooked, and that’s the ability to get in your cosplay by yourself.

Neumaier mentioned, “A lot of my earlier projects like Subject Delta from BioShock 2 and even the Halo ODST cosplay I worked on with David Bremer. You can’t get in and out of them yourself which limits where you can take them and how to build them and it causes a lot of problems. So most projects I do there is a lot of time figuring out how you get this on and off. My Martian suit is a great example of this. You know when Matt Damon’s on set he’s got a team of people who are going to bolt the chest piece to him and run cooling hoses and zip them up in the back. I don’t have that. So I need to be able to get this thing on and off myself. I actually had to design a harness to hold the backpack on. All the buttons have to be in places I can actually reach with my arms to actually zip it up. I had to make my own, like what the wetsuit people have a little chain to pull the zipper. Even on Watney (The Martian), there’s no pockets. So I had to make like a NASA looking pouch to put on the suit so I could put my phone and even most gloves I make on. I do spend extra time to make sure I can operate a phone with my gloves on. There’s a lot of engineering ventilations.”

Of course form is important as well, especially when you are competing for conventions and being recognized by fans who love the characters, and Neumaier is very aware of that as well when cosplaying.

Neumaier remarked, “So every project there is the technical side of how do I not die in this thing, and then there is also the cosmetic side of what details need to show up? How do I make these details? I don’t worry about giving it 100% like a lot of friends who are artists, but I try to get at least most of what people will notice there. And sometimes what people notice completely surprises me. Like the Rocketeer pack [from the movie The Rocketeer]. I took it to an anime convention when I first built it, and I didn’t have the gum from the bullet hole in it yet because I’m like, “no one’s gonna remember this movie. It came out in 1991.” And people not only remembered the movie, they remembered the plot point about the gun. So I ended up having to put the gum in there. But then other details people don’t even know if they’re correct or not like Darth Vader and his chest box. People think it lights up and in most movies it actually doesn’t. The two square lights are only on in Revenge of the Sith and the Obi Wan Kenobi show, but every other movie they’re off. There’s like that whole Mandela effect on details.”

Neumaier’s attention to detail, and attempt at accuracy, actually helped catch a troublesome spot early when he spotted a bump on his hand he was worried would stand out in his cosplay.

Neumaier recalled, “That Emperor Belos cosplay actually saved my life. I was booked to go to KatsuCon, and I had this ugly bump on my hand that was showing through the glove. So I went to my doctor and said “I want this off”. They said “It’s not bothering anything. Don’t worry about it.” I replied “I want it off my hand so my glove looks correct when I wear it.” And then they found out that it was cancer,  so if I didn’t do that it would have been there much longer and then I probably would have lost the function on my hand.”

Thankfully that didn’t happen, and Neumaier’s kept upping his cosplay, while also finding ways to use his expertise and accrued skills to teach the next generation about cosplay and S.T.E.M.

Neumaier said, “There was a young boy who I met back 10 years ago and he was dressed up as a Dalek from Doctor Who, and I gave a panel on how the Dalek [I constructed[ worked. And I actually sat down with him [to share] here’s how the Dalek works, and then years later he actually led his high school robotics team. I definitely have used [cosplay] as a gateway to get people into S.T.E.M. and I prefer S.T.E.A.M., science, technology, engineering, art and math. It’s all the same coin. Because on the one hand you have this aerospace engineer who makes costumes which sounds like two completely different coins, but they both help each other. I’ve done plenty of cosplay prop stuff to get work done [for my day job]. In fact, with the Artemis mission molding and casting I’ve learned is what led us to build [items] for Artemis. Then I’ve had the engineering I’ve learned which helps me with prop building like structural strength and mathematics. So it has actually gone hand in hand with each other. That’s why I like taking the droids and wearing the spacesuit costumes to get people interested in this. I would love to see more. I definitely. When you go to conventions you meet a lot of people who want to get into the entertainment industry, but when they get wowed by a project I always try to nudge them into engineering because I definitely would like to see more people getting into that. “

Thanks to his work he has also been able to teach about his cosplay and prop fabrication at work as well.

“Because I’ve had to make prop stuff for work, like fit check articles, mock ups for CDR (Critical Design Review), and trade show models, I’ve actually [made] props for my aerospace work,” mentioned Neumaier. “We have this educational outreach and employee development [at my work], and I’ve actually been able to teach a prop making class at work for two hours a week for 11 weeks. And what I’m working on this year, after I finish up a few things, is trying to make that into a book format. So hopefully later this year and early 2024, I can make a URL for people who want to get into this for a quick handbook on how to get started in this.”

When asked what advice Neumaier would share for the next generation, he recommended “Get out and try everything. Just take any opportunity. If you have friends inviting you out to something that may not be your thing, go and just keep trying new things. Just take every opportunity you possibly can. Don’t just sit at home. Meet people, do things, always keep building, always keep creating, and always keep learning. [Life] goes quickly and you only get to write one story. You want to make it an interesting one.”

I remarked that Neumaier truly lived out his childhood dream, and he reflected on that and said “I didn’t think I was an odd case, but apparently I am. I actually do what I wanted to do when I grew up. The joke is everybody wants to be astronauts or cowboys and then you grow out of it. [but]I apparently never grew out of it. I literally still build rockets. They just announced the crew for Artemis Two today, who will be the first people going around the moon in 50 years. I have parts on the rocket that’s going to launch. I literally have parts on a moon rocket. So I did what I wanted to do when I grew up.”

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