We’ve enlisted Carl Walker, ESA Space History Editor, self-professed scutelliphilist (patch geek) and Space Rocks co-conspirator, for a new series about space mission patches. Each month we’ll look at the stories behind the designs and history of these colourful collectibles…



Mission patches are reproductions of space mission logos worn by astronauts and people associated with those missions. Often called just ‘space patches’, they include visual elements that represent the mission and, human spaceflight, typically list the names of the crews. Patches are traditionally worn on the spacesuits (and flight suits) that astronauts and cosmonauts wear when launched into space. They are usually embroidered but, for Apollo, the patches worn on the actual spacesuits and inflight garments were printed on beta cloth, a white flame-proof covering, as a precaution against fire (even though embroidered examples were still produced for ground wear, non-flight personnel, sale to collectors and to be flown in space as souvenirs.)



The first NASA missions lacked crew patches; instead, the astronauts gave their spacecraft names. Mercury and Gemini crews wore the NASA logo and on Gemini 4 the United States flag was added. But the idea of dedicated designs came from Gemini 5 commander Gordon Cooper. At that time, NASA astronauts were pilots from a military background. Military pilots from many countries have traditions of using artwork for symbolic or recognition purposes, such ‘nose art’ on their aircraft, or wearing emblems denoting squadron and units, which themselves have a long history traceable perhaps to earlier military banners, distinctive uniforms or heraldic crests. With the Gemini 5 ‘pioneer wagon’ design, the concept of military patches was carried over to civilian space exploration. Since 1965, the so-called ‘Cooper patch’ was worn on the right breast of the astronaut’s spacesuits and uniforms, below their nametags and opposite the NASA emblems worn on the left.



But Gemini 5’s wasn’t the first patch flown in space. Unknown to the Gemini crews and to most of the West, Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova had a ‘patch’ on her Vostok 6 flight in 1963. She wore a design of a dove, embroidered directly on to her inner flightsuit, but this was hidden from public view by the bright orange overall that was part of the spacesuit at the time. This was the only ‘personalised’ patch in the Vostok series, and in the Russian space programme, until the Interkosmos programme in the late 1970s. These crewed flights to the Salyut and Mir space stations between 1978 and 1988 featured the first Russian mission logos. The first clearly identified official Russian space patch was Soyuz 19, part of the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project, in 1975.


After that, some international flights had a patch, but only from 1994 onward did every Russian crewed launch feature a space patch.  Although European human spaceflights, performed by ESA, are dependent on US or Russian launches, most European astronauts have worn a patch designed for their particular mission (apart from some of the earlier Shuttle flights when ESA, CNES or DLR astronauts wore the same crew patches as their NASA colleagues). ESA maintains a patch gallery of every patch worn by European astronauts.



For trips to the Space Station, an ESA astronaut will typically wear four patches, not just one. This is because Expedition crews overlap. Astronauts travel to the Station in groups of two or three and join a crew of astronauts already in space. These five or six astronauts form the Expedition, and are represented by a mission patch. About half way through their time on the Station, half the crew departs. The crew remaining on board are joined by another crew of astronauts, forming a new Expedition and requiring a second patch. They also wear the patch of their Soyuz flight and then their ESA mission patch.



When you think of an astronaut’s job description, graphic design may not be the first thing that comes to mind. However, at least one astronaut on each crew is given responsibility for designing their team’s patch. Expedition patches tend to be designed by NASA graphic designers, but some have been created by other designers. The Russian flight patches are generally approved by the Soyuz commander. But in each case, the design is still directed by the crew.



Today, ESA mission patches are designed either by the Agency’s graphics teams or, occasionally, even by members of the public through competitions organised by the national space agencies. You can buy patches yourself from various sources which are listed here and you can also get dedicated ESA mission patches from the ESA online shop.



See more from Carl Walker at @spacemanfellow






Picture credits

Tim Peake: ESA

Gemini 5 patch: Eugene Dorr 

Valentina Tereshkova’s Vostok 6 mission patch: Luc van den Abeelen