Orwell Astronomical Society (Ipswich)
Space Mission Patches
This article highlights an interesting offshoot from the mainstream of astronomy; one that has - for me - become something of an enjoyable pursuit, an adventure and a learning experience. It began in summer 2007, when I finally plucked up the courage to board an aeroplane (hitherto I had always subscribed to the principle that if humanity were meant to fly, we'd have been born with feathers) and visited Kennedy Space Center, Florida, USA. I spent a portion of my time there enjoying a liberal dose of retail therapy within the superb space shop. This started me collecting embroidered space mission patches - of which there is a simply vast number available. Given my fascination of more than 40 years with the Apollo project, and not being possessed of unlimited financial resources, I have had to specialise - so no prizes for guessing where my interest tends…
There is very little in print to explain the origin of mission patches. Probably the best of what is available is contained within a 128-page book published in the USA in 1986 entitled Space Patches From Mercury to the Shuttle by Judith Kaplan and Robert Muniz. It is long since out of print, but the occasional copy comes to light within the book trade (try www.abebooks.co.uk). By far the best and to my mind most authoritative reference source available on the internet may be found at genedorr.com/patches/Intro.html.
The tradition of mission patches evolved within the US military when crews wanted to personalise their missions and their own part within them. Mission patches were largely the province of aviators and, given that the early astronauts were drawn from their ranks, it's hardly surprising that such symbolism gained a foothold in the American space programme. The original seven Mercury astronauts all gave names to their capsules, but no patches were produced and those available today are modern interpretations based upon the names of the capsules.
It was not until Gemini V (manned by Gordon Cooper and Pete Conrad) that crew patches were sanctioned by NASA. Even then, Conrad - an irrepressible, free spirited wag - vexed his bosses by his suggestion for a patch. His choice depicted a settler's wagon with the somewhat irreverent text "8 DAYS OR BUST" on the tarpaulin: this emphasised the concern that if the planned eight day mission had to be curtailed, the media would seize upon it as a failure. The settler's wagon patch was adopted, but without the reference to eight days. (So much for the belief that "spin" is a purely modern irritation!) Thereafter, the tradition flourished with every crew designing and wearing a patch to signify a key aspect of their mission. (Incidentally, Conrad went on to command the almost flawless Apollo 12 mission which landed on the Moon on 19 November 1969. The crew precision-landed within a short moon-walk of an earlier American soft landing probe, Surveyor 1, on Oceanus Procellarum, and successfully recovered a piece of the probe to take back for study. Sadly, he died in a motorcycle accident in 1999.)
Some Apollo patches were designed and intended for missions that were subsequently cancelled due to cutbacks imposed by Congress on the original NASA budget. These patches are highly sought after and - frustratingly - not yet in my own collection!
Not to be outdone and certainly an integral part of the Apollo Programme, the United States Navy produced its own mission-related patches for the capital ships involved in the recovery of the command modules and their crews at the conclusion of each mission.
Be aware that the majority (but not all) of patches available through the likes of eBay and other outlets are modern reproductions or even commercially produced by patch makers to mark whatever loose connection with the original may be opportune. Many of these are otherwise excellent examples and I am under no illusion that the majority of my own collection are not "genuine originals". By and large, if you purchase patches through NASA shops or recognised commercial dealers like www.CollectSpace.com or obtain patches made by firms such as "Lion Bros" or "AB Emblems", you won't run too much risk. Generally, too, the 100 mm diameter patches are closer to authentic and more collectable, the smaller 75 mm ones often being churned out en masse by sweat shop labour!
It is possible to obtain silk screen printed patches on fireproof material known as Beta Cloth - space suit material, although mostly of second quality. Note that in fact, woven and embroidered patches are not worn sewn on to the astronaut's suits or overalls during missions due to fire risk; rather they are intended for non-flying apparel, pre- and post-mission publicity and mission support staff. So with that understanding: caveat emptor!
Many patches are produced for support staff to mark their sphere of involvement; e.g. mission control, launch pad technicians, fire and security amongst many. At the other end of the cost spectrum, NASA astronauts have over time been allowed to carry a few mission patches each on their various space flights. These so-called flown patches, where the provenance can be verified, fetch significant sums - obviously the more famous the mission, the more valuable the item.
Nowadays, patches are available for both unmanned and manned missions. There are, for instance, some delightful patches designed for the Spirit and Opportunity missions to Mars, the New Horizons mission to Pluto and legion others from all space-faring nations. Various space hardware manufacturers produce their own versions - patches related to Grumman's Lunar Module contract being particularly desirable to collectors.
As previously mentioned, my specific interest in collecting mission patches is anything and everything to do with the NASA Apollo programme. Each of the manned missions, including the ill-fated Apollo 1, had its own patch, but Apollo missions 2 - 6 were unmanned proving tests of the Command & Service Module (CSM), Lunar Module (LM) and Saturn rocket booster systems that to the best of my knowledge were not assigned any logo. Having said that, there was a very hard-to-find, but attractive, patch designed by Grumman (the LM contractors) produced for Apollo 5, an unmanned initial testing flight for the Lunar Module - depicting the LM minus its landing legs at the point of ascent stage motor firing and separation from the descent stage.
Particularly in the case of Apollo 14, there was much well-meant rivalry between the prime and backup crews, although this is not specifically mentioned in The Unbroken Chain. The prime crew of Apollo 14, including Commander Al Shepard, the first American into space, designed and produced a patch showing the cartoon character Road Runner standing on the lunar surface being chased by a burnt out Wily Coyote. Not to be outdone, the backup crew got at least as far as having some artwork produced for a sarcastic reply, but it's uncertain that the artwork was ever translated into an actual patch - see below. However, the backup crew, amongst which was Gene Cernan of Apollos 10 and 17 (the last man, thus far, to have walked on the Moon) has its own place in history, insofar as it worked on the only dedicated patch produced by a backup crew of the entire Apollo programme.
I hope that this article describes an offshoot from the science of astronomy, and one that may inspire others to begin their own collections of mission patches. There is a lot of history to be gleaned from the pursuit - and the fun of the chase is along the way!
The one major glitch in the Apollo 12 mission occurred within a few seconds of lift-off, when lightening struck the 1st stage engines and the craft lost all electrical instrumentation for a few seconds. Thereafter stringent rules have been applied to all manned launches where rain or clouds suggest the possibility of such strikes - a major reason why Shuttle launches are frequently delayed these days.
Although people working on the Apollo programme were dedicated to their jobs, humour and practical jokes were part and parcel of their day-to-day existence: there is no better source book for such tales than the autobiography written by one of Apollo's most endearing characters, Guenter Wendt, who was the white room pad leader at the launches. It is entitled The Unbroken Chain, published by Apogee Books in 2001.
Ken Goward, FRAS