Patch Me Through: Stories Behind Iconic Mission Patches
Mission patches are an integral part of every space mission, project, experiment, and program. Traditionally, they have been designed by crew members of a mission or people working for NASA and its contractors. Each patch is unique and tells a different story about the team and project to which it belongs. Let's take a look at five of the most iconic crewed mission patches.
The first five Gemini crews with their mission insignia (NASA)
Beginning with the first crewed flights of the Gemini program in 1965, each mission had its own insignia designed by the astronauts or artists associated with NASA and its contractors. These images were minted on gold-plated sterling medallions and flown into space. Gemini 5 was the first American mission with an embroidered patch . Mercury veteran Gordon Cooper and rookie Pete Conrad chose the image of a Conestoga wagon, which symbolized the pioneering nature of their flight. The slogan "8 Days Or Bust" was included in red letters on the wagon because the flight was meant to last a record-setting eight days. However, before launch the phrase was covered with a piece of canvas because NASA thought the joke would reflect poorly on the mission if the flight did not last its full duration. Legend has it the crew asked a local patch company to produce hundreds of their insignia and they sewed them onto their spacesuits themselves. The pair waited until their pre-launch dinner party to tell NASA Administrator James Webb about the patches and he disapproved. They were able to convince him the insignia represented everyone working on the program, not just the two of them. After the success of the mission, Webb directed all future space crews to wear their own patch, internally referred to as a "Cooper patch", thus instigating one of the most cherished traditions in the space industry.
The simple yet heavily symbolic 1969 Apollo 11 mission patch was primarily designed by command module pilot Michael Collins with input from others. The patch lacks surnames because it is representative of everyone who worked to land men on the moon, not just the crew members. Backup commander Jim Lovell suggested including a bald eagle, the national bird of the United States. The eagle depicted on the patch was actually painted by Walter Alios Weber and featured in the National Geographic book Water, Prey, and Game Birds of North America. Collins drew the sun shining onto the Earth from the wrong direction and it was never corrected. The original design read "eleven" but commander Neil Armstrong felt it would not be understandable to non-English speakers so they opted for Arabic numerals instead. Tom Wilson, a simulator instructor, suggested the eagle carry an olive branch as a symbol of peaceful exploration. Originally, the eagle carried the branch in its beak as eagles tend to do. NASA Headquarters did not approve because its outstretched talons looked too menacing and war-like, and it could not be shown with its legs up because it was supposed to be landing. They settled on having the bird carry the olive branch in its talons.
The 1975 Apollo-Soyuz Test Project insignia was designed by Jean Pinataro of North American Rockwell with help from the crew. Her original design was disapproved so a new patch was commissioned by the astronauts though it follows a similar design as the first. This official version is derived from space artist Robert McCall's 1974 painting of an Apollo spacecraft docking with a Soviet Soyuz. The sun's rays are not in the formation of a cross, as typical in McCall's paintings, since it could be perceived as a religious symbol. The lettering follows the alphabets used by both nations— Latin for the US and Cyrillic for the USSR— and is placed below the respective spacecraft. Three white stars on a blue strip represent the three American crewmen while the two gold stars on a red strip represent the two Soviet crewmen. This patch was only worn by the three Americans.
STS-41-G's 1984 mission patch was designed by Patrick Rawlings and served as the baseplate for crew patches until the Challenger disaster in 1986. Its main focus is the gold astronaut pin, representing the first Shuttle mission to fly a full crew of seven, as well as the multiple rookies on the crew trading in their silver pin for gold. The bottom is surrounded by smoke as if it were launching into space. The large American flag near the top has thirteen stars to represent STS-41-G being the 13th flight in the program. Beneath the flag in the background are seventeen white stars representing the flight's original designation as STS-17. This was the first patch to include the last names of the payload specialists on a bottom strip, which was actually a separate piece of fabric sewn onto the back of the main circle. All patches up to and including STS-51-L follow this pattern with the exception of STS-51-A and STS-51-I . After each name is a small astronomical Mars or Venus symbol to indicate whether the crew member was male or female. STS-41-G was also the first mission to carry multiple women (Sally Ride and Kathy Sullivan). Additionally, there is a small Canadian flag next to "Garneau" to emphasize him as the first Canadian astronaut.
The 2003 STS-107 patch was primarily designed by crew members Laurel Clark and Kalpana Chawla and is loosely inspired by Chawla's STS-87 insignia. This patch's most memorable feature is its Space Shuttle orbiter shape. The main focal point is a yellow symbol for microgravity flowing into the three rays of the Astronaut Corps insignia. The mission's orbital inclination of 39° is portrayed by the angle of the symbol relative to Earth's horizon. The sunrise represents the dawn of a new era for microgravity research. The constellation Columbia (the dove) on the left symbolizes peace and alludes to the name of the spacecraft. The dove is also connected to the Argonauts, a group of heroes in Greek mythology. The constellation has seven stars for the seven astronauts of the mission as well as the Mercury 7. One of the stars has six points in the style of the Star of David for Ilan Ramon, the first Israeli in space. A small Israeli flag is also located next to his name as tribute to his home country.
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 The crew of Gemini 4 wore American flag patches on their shoulders.
 Neither STS-51-A nor STS-51-I flew payload specialists so the bottom tab was not needed.
Human Space Flight Mission Patch Handbook: A Complete Guide to NASA's Human Space Flight Mission Patches, for Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab and Space Shuttle Programs. AeroGraphics, Inc., 2012.