The Bubble Suit
The Bubble Boy

David Vetter (pictured here with his mother and father) took his first steps outside of his isolation bubble thanks to a little NASA ingenuity.


John Travolta and Jake Gyllenhaal might have enjoyed happy endings in their portrayals of the "Bubble Boy," but the real story ended tragically in 1984 when 12-year-old David Vetter died in the months following a bone marrow transplant that his doctors had hoped would reverse his severe combined immunodeficiency.

David spent almost the entirety of his short life within the cramped confines of stationary and mobility NASA-built bubbles (more technically referred to as isolators) except for a brief span before his death and during a series of outings starting in 1977, the year the space agency gave him a special gift. Then 5 years old, David received a Mobile Biological Isolation System: the infamous bubble suit.

The custom-built contraption (which also included a mobile support vehicle) cost $50,000 to make and came with a 54-page instructional manual [source: PBS]. It frightened David to enter it for the first time -- he had to make his way through an 8-foot-long (2.5-meter-long) tunnel to reach the form-fitting suit component. But once inside the mobile bubble suit, he was excited by the novelty of everyday experiences like being able to hand things to other people and walk for more than a few steps in any direction. Eventually, however, the practice of using the bubble suit began to unnerve him, and he ceased venturing about.

Apart from David's bubble suit and its accompanying mobile support vehicle, the Smithsonian also acquired one of his stationary isolation units and several of his possessions including games, toys and drawings.