In this week’s Patch Us In, ESA patch expert Carl Walker has the very latest news on the patch for mission Alpha – Thomas Pesquet’s recently announced flight on board SpaceX’s Crew-2 Dragon scheduled for next year…


Last week, ESA announced that French astronaut Thomas Pesquet will be the first European to fly on a SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station. This is its second crewed operational flight, called Crew-2, scheduled for launch in early 2021. Thomas will fly with NASA astronauts Shane Kimbrough and Megan McArthur, and JAXA astronaut Akihiko Hoshide.


His mission is called ‘Alpha’ after Alpha Centauri – the closest stellar system to Earth – which follows the French tradition to name space missions after stars or constellations. The name was selected from over 27,000 entries to an ESA competition. The winning submission that was first to suggest the name was from Christelle de Larrard from Mios in France’s Gironde.


“There were many reasons to choose Alpha as a mission name,” says Thomas. “It connects to my first mission, Proxima, as the stars belong to the same system close to Earth, and therefore convey the same idea of proximity (such as space research for people on Earth) and an idea of continuation in my work. Alpha, the Greek letter, is also widely used in mathematics, science and technology, and, as the first letter of the alphabet, it is often synonymous with the excellence we try to achieve in space exploration.”


Alpha was also the name of an earlier proposed design of the International Space Station. It was used as a radio call sign by NASA astronaut Bill Shepherd for the first long stay mission to the Station, Expedition 1 in 2000. Thomas’s Alpha mission patch features a rocket launch, namely a Falcon launch vehicle and Crew Dragon capsule. Around the border are 17 coloured bars representing the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. As shown below, these are a list of goals aimed at achieving a better and more sustainable future for everyone on Earth; they address the global challenges we face, such as poverty, gender equality, health, clean water, climate change and environmental degradation.


At the top of the patch, the International Space Station is stylised in the colours of the French flag. Ten stars in the background evoke the Centaurus constellation, and the number of French astronauts who have flown into space (chronologically these are: Jean-Loup Chrétien, Patrick Baudry, Michel Tognini, Jean-Pierre Haigneré, Jean-François Clervoy, Jean-Jacques Favier, Claudie Haigneré, Léopold Eyharts, Philippe Perrin and Thomas himself).


This latest ESA patch was designed by ESA graphic designers Karen Oldenburg and Sarah Poletti, who both work at ESA’s ESTEC site in the Netherlands. Karen has designed ESA mission patches before, but this was Sarah’s first time working on a crewed mission. “I’ve already designed logos for some of our science missions, but this is the first astronaut patch I’ve worked on, which is very exciting,” said Sarah.


It was clear from the start that Thomas wanted something completely different. Sarah said, “He wanted the patch to be nothing like previous designs, a light background rather than a dark one, no stars, no planets, not even the Moon or Earth, like other patches.”


After an initial brief from Thomas, Karen produced 10 drafts, and then Sarah took over. When Sarah eventually spoke to Thomas earlier this year, there was a lot of talk about the stars. “He said no stars, but eventually we agreed to have 10 stars to signify the 10 French astronauts.”


Thomas asked for the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals to be represented. He is a keen proponent of these goals, being also an official UNICEF ambassador and speaking out on environmental issues. Sarah: “Thomas was very particular about this ‘colour wheel’ idea like the logo of the Sustainable Development Goals, with which he’s been involved for some time, but we didn’t have permission to use their actual logo, so we created something similar using ESA’s colour palette.”


Thomas is the first ESA astronaut selected to fly on a Dragon. “This was also very important for Thomas, so that had to be included too,” said Sarah. “At first, it was very difficult to show detail in the Dragon spacecraft and its rocket at this scale to make them accurate. But we talked to SpaceX, who were happy to send us artwork for the Dragon,” she explained.


The clouds from the rocket launch proved to be a challenge too. “We kept adjusting them because sometimes they just looked wrong or like pollution,” said Sarah. “I think in total we produced over 100 variations of this design.”


“All in all,” said Sarah, “I really enjoyed working with Thomas. He had a real feel for the design, use of colour and shapes. It was like working with another designer, who was challenging me all the time. It’s just his way, to have something new and fresh, which is very interesting.”



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