Astronauts Neil A. Armstrong (left), command pilot, and David R. Scott, pilot, the Gemini 8 prime crew, during a March 1966 photo session outside the Kennedy Space Center (KSC) Mission Control Center, posed in front of a radar dish. Image c/o NASA

If you’ve ever dreamed of being an astronaut and going to space, you’ve probably pictured becoming an aficionado in flight maneuvers, gravitational mathematics, and extra vehicular space walks. But for one brief moment during the flight preparations that will take them far beyond the reaches of the earth’s atmosphere, NASA astronauts have to be brand designers, too. 

For each mission, the crew of astronauts hunker down for something akin to a Post-it ideation session to come up with the graphic design of their mission patch. From kitschy covered wagons to Italian couture, the resulting designs that have graced every program from Apollo to the Space Shuttle are portraits of the characters, eccentricities, and quirks of space missions that spent billions of dollars getting to the moon but wouldn’t shell out for a design team. 

Astronauts L. Gordon Cooper Jr. (right) and Charles Conrad Jr. walk across the deck of the recovery aircraft carrier U.S.S. Lake Champlain following splashdown and recovery from the ocean. You can see the Gemini 5 patch just under their name badges. Image c/o NASA

The tradition of patches in the space program originated in the days of the Civil War, when badges were used to identify select regiments. Later, Air Force pilots emblazoned their jets with irreverent names and evocative fuselage art (they were particularly fond of shark teeth and pin-up girls). When the first classes of astronauts arrived at NASA, most of them from military backgrounds, they looked for similar ways to personalize their crafts. Painting the lunar module was out, as was naming, so Gemini 5 astronaut Gordon Cooper pushed hard in 1965 to include a mission patch, thus launching the tradition of astronaut-designed branding. The Gemini 5 patch trundled a pioneer-style covered wagon onto a blank white field. There may have been more elegant ways to suggest new frontiers, but Cooper was the one piloting the wagon to the stars. The wagon stayed. 

Gemini 8 patch. Image c/o NASA

Missions that included a battery of medical experiments (i.e. physiological tests like checking heart rate, blood pressure, etc.)  had badges that referenced the human endurance of the Olympic marathon. The Gemini 8 crew rocked a Pink Floyd-esque prism splitting rainbow, perhaps to suggest the full range of their activities. Engineers and scientists, more used to centrifuges than san serifs, often put out questionably designed patches. “If you look at the history of NASA patches, there are some that are pretty good and some that frankly aren’t,” said former International Space Station (ISS) commander Leroy Chiao. Some missions tried to squeeze their entire workflow into one small circle. “What often happens unfortunately,” said Chiao, “is you get a patch designed by committee, which doesn’t work very well… A lot of the time, you get this kitchen-sink patch, which is not very attractive.”

Once in a blue moon, the renderings for the patch design were outsourced to unlikely places. “When the Apollo 15 astronauts are launched, they will be wearing a red, white, and blue Apollo 15 emblem designed by the couturier Emilio Pucci,” the New York Times reported in 1971. Crew commander David Scott, influenced by his wife’s love of the Italian designer’s clothes, had requested that Pucci create a high fashion emblem for the bulky space suits. The result was three boomerang curves, like winged birds soaring over the craters of the Apollo 15 landing site. “I wanted to give the feeling of motion—a feeling of an object moving in space in a streamlined capsule,” Pucci told the Times. The Apollo 15 astronauts didn’t give the Italian designer carte blanche. They nixed his iconic blue, green, and lavender color scheme in favor of good ol’ red, white, and blue. 

Apollo 15 crew David Scott, Alfred Worden, and James Irwin (L-R). Image c/o NASA

Often, the ideation session served as more than an aesthetic flex. It was how the crew agreed on the ethos of the journey on which they were about to embark. “It was a way for the astronauts to express their creativity,” said Dr. Teasel Muir-Harmony, curator at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum and author of Apollo to the Moon: A History in Fifty Objects. “And it was a nice opportunity for them to get together and talk through what they thought the individual mission symbolized.” 

“It was a way for the astronauts to express their creativity”

The Apollo 11 patch marking the 1969 moon landing depicts an American eagle descending onto a lunar landscape to deliver an olive branch. The flight crew Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins paired the idea of world peace with a clear message of American domination in the space race. Aware of the global media attention the mission would receive, the crew left their names off of the badge. “They really wanted to symbolize the mission was for all humankind,” said Muir-Harmony. “It wasn’t just about three astronauts on the mission… They wanted it to be inclusive.” 

Mission Operations Control Room in the Mission Control Center, Building 30, Manned Spacecraft Center, showing the flight controllers celebrating the successful conclusion of the Apollo 11 lunar landing mission. (July 24, 1969) Image c/o NASA

Given how chock-full of expertise NASA is, it may seem surprising that, at the crucial stage of brand identity, a team of admitted amateurs would be put at the helm. But the unbridled (if untrained) creativity that the amateur patches showcase was actually pretty indicative of the United States’ approach to the space race. “They weren’t given that much instruction or limitation in how they wanted to express themselves and their experience,” said Muir-Harmony, who noted that Neil Armstrong was allowed to come up with his first words on the moon; the only guardrails were generally to “say something appropriate.” The Soviet Union might keep their missions secret and their cosmonauts on a tight leash, but not the Americans. Embodying a freewheeling national character, astronauts—PhD scientists, engineers, and ace pilots—for one brief moment in the ramp up of each mission, embraced their authentic inner amateur and let their creative personalities shine through.