History of Patches


A tradition that grew up in the military was for a crew to design a patch that symbolizes their mission, and to use it to represent them and their mission. As the early astronaut corps was comprised largely of military pilots, it was natural that the same tradition should take hold in the space program.

The Mercury flights were crewed by a single pilot, and the tradition during that program tended toward naming the spacecraft, as military pilots often give names to their aircraft. Alan Shepard began the tradition with his Freedom 7. According to Shepard, the "7" denoted the fact that his was capsule number 7 - that is, the 7th built by the manufacturer, McDonnell Aircraft. Apparently most people thought that the "7" referred to the number of astronauts in the program, and since this idea was so appealing, subsequent capsule names all included the "7".

Mission Astronaut Name
Mercury Redstone 3 Alan B. Shepard Freedom 7
Mercury Redstone 4 Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom Liberty Bell 7
Mercury Atlas 6 John H. Glenn, Jr Friendship 7
Mercury Atlas 7 Malcolm Scott Carpenter Aurora 7
Mercury Atlas 8 Walter M. Schirra, Jr Sigma 7
Mercury Atlas 9 Leroy Gordon Cooper, Jr Faith 7

STS-95 patch On a somewhat related note, when John Glenn got his second ride into space -- on the Space Shuttle Discovery, 36 years after his first flight -- the crew consisted of 7 astronauts: the size of the entire astronaut corps at the time of Glenn's Friendship 7 flight! The patch for this mission incorporated a large red numeral 7, in a style similar to that used on Glenn's Friendship 7 capsule.

It was when multi-person crews began flying in the Gemini program that the idea of a crew patch came into its own. It came in the wake of the disapproval of spacecraft names by NASA higher-ups after Gus Grissom named his inaugural Gemini spacecraft Molly Brown (from the Broadway musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown), in remembrance of his sunken Mercury capsule, Liberty Bell 7.

Early Days

NASA management was unhappy with the name Molly Brown, thinking it a bit frivolous. Jim McDivitt wanted to name his Gemini spacecraft American Eagle, but headquarters had had enough of names, and vetoed the idea. So instead the Gemini 4 crew, Jim McDivitt and Ed White, decided to use the American flag as their crew patch. While it seems surprising now, earlier astronauts did not wear an American flag on their pressure suits -- just a name tag and the NASA emblem. However, like the "7" of Freedom 7, the idea caught on and has persisted to this day: all American crews since Gemini 4 have worn an American flag on their flight suits.

The next crew, Gemini 5's Gordon Cooper and Pete Conrad, wanted to find a way to personalize their flight, so Conrad hit on the idea of a patch -- such as Navy air squadrons have. With an ambitious 8-day mission planned, the longest to date, they designed a patch featuring a Conestoga wagon and the pioneering motto "8 Days or Bust". While NASA administrator Webb conceded to the crew their right to a mission patch, he decreed that the wording be deleted, lest a shortened mission be referred to as a "bust".

The tradition of a mission patch continues to the present time, with every Shuttle mission crew designing and wearing a patch usually signifying something unique about their flight.

The Popularization of Patches

While mission patches were initially an informal creation by the crew, they quickly became formalized, and were widely-used to symbolize each flight. Inevitably, space enthusiasts started collecting mission patches and, just as inevitably, entrepreneurs saw this trend as an opportunity to make money. The patch business was born. Patch collecting became so popular that entrepreneurs designed patches for all the flights that never had one. These patches are usually characterized by a stark lack of imagination and creative design.

While mission patches up to and including Apollo 1 were embroidered, following the tragic Apollo 1 fire, all flammable materials were banned from the spacecraft, and this included embroidered patches. Instead, beginning with Apollo 7 all crew patches were silk-screened onto non-flammable "Beta cloth". Embroidered versions of each patch were still used by astronauts and ground support personnel for non-flight use [Still, p. 168] - and purchased by collectors. Unfortunately, in the rush for profit, the creators of embroidered patches were seldom concerned with fidelity to the original design.

The most egregious departures, of course, were the designs (mentioned earlier) that never existed, but were invented long after the fact, to satisfy unknowledgeable collectors' lust for "complete collections". The astronauts had nothing to do with these patches or their designs. Amazingly, even some of NASA's own web sites (for example, KSC's Historical Archive pages) display these after-the-fact commemorative patches. Another example of serious departure from the original design: certain Gemini mission patches did not include the names of the crew (Gemini 7, 9 and 10), but in commercially sold versions the crew names have been added. The early Apollo patches suffered greatly in the transition to embroidery; however, beginning with Apollo 11 the embroidered patches became much more faithful to the original design. Sadly, the embroidered versions of the earlier patches have become so pervasive that many people are unfamiliar with the true appearance of the earlier designs.

The marketing of mission patches hit a few bumps in the road over the years, in the form of NASA enforcement of restrictions on use of patches. As part of the caption of every mission patch from Gemini 5 through Apollo 14, the following paragraph was included:

"The NASA insignia design for [Gemini/Apollo] flights is reserved for use by the astronauts and for other official use as the NASA Administrator may authorize. Public availability has been approved only in the form of illustrations by the various news media. When and if there is any change in this policy, which we do not anticipate, it will be publicly announced."

The captions for the Apollo 15 and 16 patches included this more strongly worded notice:

"This is the official Apollo [15/16] emblem, property of the government of the United States. It has been authorized only for use by the astronauts. Its reproduction in any form other than in news, information and education media is not authorized without approval. Unauthorized use of the photograph is subject to the provisions of Title 18, U.S. Code, Section 701."

The notice was dropped completely beginning with the Apollo 17 patch. For more information on this issue, see Still and Kircher.

Beta Cloth

"The Apollo 204 review board ... recommended that non-flammable materials replace combustible ones wherever possible. ... Nylon cloth in the spacecraft and in the suits was replaced by Beta cloth, a substance developed by Frederick S. Dawn's research team in conjunction with the Dow-Corning Company. Technically called Beta-silica fiber, it was a different material than that used in trade-name Fiberglass products. Beta-silica fibers could be spun into thin threads and then woven into fabric with a melting point of over 650°C that would neither ignite nor produce toxic fumes." [Kozloski, p.79]

"The ITMG [integrated thermal micrometeoroid garment, the outermost component of the Apollo spacesuit] also had a Beta cloth outer layer. Scientists found that Beta cloth by itself creased easily and ripped. But Teflon added tensile strength and abrasion resistance when used as a coating over the Beta silica fiber, which was then spun into yarn. ... Intravehicular cover layers were made of two layers of woven Teflon-coated Beta silica fiber..." [Kozloski, p.88]

"On prolonged flights, astronauts could now remove their space suits and don two-piece coveralls that afforded both comfort and protection. The coveralls, which were worn over a soft cotton undergarment, were made from Beta cloth, the same flame-resistant fabric as the space suit outer layer." [Kozloski, p.92]

An interesting side note regarding Beta cloth developed during the preparations for the joint American-Soviet ASTP flight. Since the Soviet Soyuz spacecraft uses an earth-normal mixture of oxygen and nitrogen, they do not have the strict flammability requirements of Apollo, and therefore use wool and cotton clothing inside Soyuz. This posed a problem for crew exchange as the cosmonauts could not be allowed to enter Apollo wearing their normal in-flight garments. NASA offered to give the Soviets enough Beta cloth to produce alternative in-flight garments for the cosmonauts, but they declined the offer, opting instead to develop their own flameproof material. The fabric they developed, called Lola, proved to have superior self-extinguishing characteristics to Beta cloth. [Ezell, p.300]

It's important to note that, as with their embroidered equivalents, when the spacesuits worn on a flight are returned to Houston, the flown patches are removed from the suits, given to the astronaut who wore the suit, and replaced with unflown (but otherwise identical) patches.

The first Beta cloth patch was for the 2TV-1 vaccuum-chamber mission simulation. The size of the images tended to vary quite a lot for the first several missions, but was finally standardized with Apollo 13. The largest of the Beta cloth patches was Apollo 8; the smallest was Apollo 12. The image below shows the variation in sizes.

The inner circle represents the Apollo 12 patch (the smallest of the Beta cloth patches); the light gray triangular area represents the Apollo 8 patch (the largest); and the black circle represents the standard size established with the Apollo 13 patch.

Title 18, US Code, Section 701


Sec. 701. Official badges, identification cards, other insignia

Whoever manufactures, sells, or possesses any badge, identification card, or other insignia, of the design prescribed by the head of any department or agency of the United States for use by any officer or employee thereof, or any colorable imitation thereof, or photographs, prints, or in any other manner makes or executes any engraving, photograph, print, or impression in the likeness of any such badge, identification card, or other insignia, or any colorable imitation thereof, except as authorized under regulations made pursuant to law, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than six months, or both.

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