About Patches

How Patches are Designed

Patch design is one of the miscellaneous duties of a flight crew. It has become obligatory for each crew to create a patch for their mission. Sometimes the crew commander takes an active role in the design; in other cases the commander may delegate the duty of coming up with a design to one of the crewmembers. The commander always has final say on the design, of course.

Sometimes an artistically inclined crewmember may design the patch, or create a sketch which is then given to a NASA graphic artist to execute. Jim Lovell seemed to enjoy designing patches for flights he was assigned to. Mike Collins also took a very active role in the development of patches for his flights. Sometimes the crew will solicit ideas for a patch designs from others involved in the project -- often including spacecraft contractor personnel. In the early days of the Apollo program, Allen Stevens, an artist with Apollo contractor North American Aviation (later North American Rockwell), did most of the mission patches.

In other cases, the crew simply commissions a professional artist to create their crew patch. Robert McCall was commissioned for the Apollo 17 patch; and Frank Kelly Freas for the Skylab 1 patch. In the case of a commissioned patch, the crew will generally provide some ideas to the artist regarding the themes they would like to see associated with their flight. The artist then submits a number of sketches to the crew for their feedback, and eventually produces the finished artwork. (See Skylab Patchwork by Frank Kelly Freas for an excellent account of how this process works.)

The artist doesn't always provide the finished artwork: in the case of Apollo 15, Dave Scott asked Emilio Pucci to design the patch, but when Pucci provided a sketched design Scott handed it over to the MSC art department to do the final rendering, with a request for changes.

Embroidered patches

During the Gemini program embroidered patches were sewn onto the astronauts space suits. And while the actual patches used on flights from Apollo 7 through ASTP were silk-screened onto beta cloth, for non-flight use embroidered patches were procured. These were affixed to ground-use clothing worn by the crew, worn by support and contractor personnel involved in the mission, and handed out as souvenirs by the astronaut crew and high-level NASA managers.

AB Emblem & Lion Brothers

Two companies figure prominently in the story of embroidered space patches. Both A-B Emblem of Weaverville, NC and Lion Brothers of Owings Mills, MD have made claims to being the "official" provider of embroidered emblems for pre-Shuttle manned missions. However, it appears that Lion Brothers was never utilized by NASA for mission patches, though contractors apparently procured patches from them. A standing contract was executed between NASA and AB Emblem in February 1970, and all mission patches from that time through the end of the Skylab program (including the embroidered SMEAT patches) were supplied to NASA by AB Emblem.

The issue of what patches are "official" is extremely murky, since the definition of "official" is itself very unclear. Embroidered patches were procured by NASA and the major contractors independently of each other. Different suppliers were used, even for a given mission. Some people consider patches that were given out by NASA and contractors as "official." Based on this, some consider only Lion Brothers patches to be "official." Yet, documents in the NASA JSC History Office Collection indisputably prove that AB Emblem was the supplier to NASA for at least the Apollo 13 through Skylab 4 missions.

Even if being flown on a mission is considered to confer the cachet of "official," the matter doesn't revolve around the patch manufacturer. According to Still, astronauts sometimes carried a mix of AB Emblem and Lion Brothers patches in their Personal Preference Kits (PPKs).

The biggest difference between AB Emblem and Lion Brothers patches (aside from appearance) is that Lion Brothers manufactured patches only at the time of the flight; whereas AB Emblem has more or less continuously manufactured the patches since the time of the flight. Thus, Lion Brothers patches are certainly "period pieces," or "vintage," while AB Emblem patches could be from any era between shortly before the flight to the current day.

Patch designs and fidelity

Currently available embroidered patches fall in several categories: completely bogus patches that never existed (Mercury missions and Geminis 3 and 4); 3" souvenir patches ; 4" patches that are usually of good quality but poor fidelity (especially Apollos 7 through 10); and faithfully executed 4" patches.

Beta cloth patches

Beta cloth was manufactured by Owens-Corning Fiberglass of Ashton, RI, under contract to NASA. Owens-Corning in turn subcontracted the printing on its Beta cloth to Screen Print Corp., of Coventry, Rhode Island. The patch designs were silk-screened (using hand-mixed pigments from Roma Color of Fall River, MA) onto beta cloth 12 at a time, with a separate printing for each color. Screen Print Corp. also printed the NASA logo, the American flag (for crew wear), and crew name tags onto Beta cloth.

Considering the number of beta cloth patches on the collector's market with poor registration (i.e. alignment of the various colors) it seems likely that many of the beta cloth patches being sold today were rejects from the quality control process.

Other uses of patches

In addition to being worn by crew, ground support personnel and contractor personnel to signify playing an active role in support of a mission, other traditional uses of the mission patch evolved.

Mission Control

At some point after Gemini 5 it became a tradition in the MOCR (mission operations control room) to place a large replica of a mission patch on the wall of the MOCR after the successful recovery of the crew.

Astronaut transfer van

Beginning with Apollo 7, an image of the crew patch was placed on the door of the crew transfer van which carries a flight crew, already fully suited, from the crew quarters building to the launch pad. Below is a photo of Steve Tatham, the driver of the crew transfer van.

Obviously someone noticed that when the crew entered the van, the patch on the outside of the door was not visible. So beginning with Apollo 8, the crew patch was displayed on the inside of the door as well.

Flown patches

Astronauts began taking patches on their flights with them in order to have their own souvenirs of the flight, and to present to family, friends and coworkers.

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