Josh's STS-127 Mission Patches

29 July 2009

Everyone who knows me knows how fond I am of mission patches, those unique insignia, designed with the assistance of the crew, that represent each flight in a reduced, graphical medium. Spaceflight mission patches date back to Gemini 5 in 1965.

The story goes that NASA, which had allowed its astronauts to name their earlier Mercury capsules, began to balk at the same practice being applied to the new Gemini vehicle. Gus Grissom and John Young certainly contributed to this new concern when they named their Gemini 3 capsule the "Molly Brown." The implication was that it was unsinkable, as the real Molly Brown had been coined following the Titanic disaster. The joke lay in the fact that Grissom's previous flight, the Mercury 4 capsule he had named "Liberty Bell 7," had sank after splashdown with Grissom only narrowly escaping. NASA officials thought the Molly Brown joke highlighted a sore spot in their spaceflight record and immediately banned the naming of capsules.

James McDivitt and Ed White, unable to name their Gemini 4 capsule the "American Eagle" as they had planned, settled for a different solution: they sewed American flags onto their spacesuits. In doing so, they became the first astronauts to wear flags on their suits, though Soviet cosmonauts had been doing that for years. The U.S. flag has come to be regarded as the de facto mission patch for Gemini 4 once the next flight established a new tradition. Gordon Cooper and Pete Conrad wanted something special for Gemini 5, so Cooper, a former Army pilot, turned to his military background which had special patches and insignia for everything imaginable. He and Conrad designed a patch for their flight featuring a Conestoga wagon bearing the enthusiastic words, "8 Days or Bust," highlighting their anticipated mission length. NASA administrator James Webb reportedly blew a gasket and demanded that the slogan be covered on all the patches by a square of fabric, in the event that the mission did not meet that mark and be seen as a failure. Gemini 5 lasted 7 days, 22 hours, 55 minutes, and 14 seconds ... which has been deemed close enough to earn the motto.

Gemini 5 mission patch

Ever since Gemini 5 each crew has seen fit to design a special emblem. Where Cooper and Conrad had their patch independently made on their dime, later designs would be professionally produced by Lion Patches and AB Emblem under the agency's flight budget, the latter company becoming the sole producer of NASA's official patches today. The so-called "Cooper Patches" came to be known collectively as "mission patches," and the rest, as they say, is history.

Before getting to my little story of whipping up a couple designs for space shuttle mission STS-127's mission patch, just let me cover the official design in brief. It's a beautiful patch and absolutely wonderful in its simplicity. I will continue to regale this simplicity in design when, as you shall see, it became a problem that I never quite managed to overcome myself.

The official STS-127 mission patch

The mission patch for STS-127 is a nice oval shape that NASA describes as: "Bathed in sunlight, the blue Earth is represented without boundaries to remind us that we all share this world. In the center, the golden flight path of the space shuttle turns into the three distinctive rays of the astronaut symbol culminating in the star-like emblem characteristic of the Japanese Space Agency, yet soaring further into space as it paves the way for future voyages and discoveries for all humankind."

That star in the center is a tremendously elegant way of depicting what I had so much difficulty with. It represents the Japanese Experiment Module payload, built and operated by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency -- JAXA -- and launched by NASA for on-orbit installation to the International Space Station. I kept trying to literally depict the payload graphically by drawing the clumsy, asymmetrical, and blocky Japanese module. Here the artists, Tim Gagnon of Florida and Jorge Cartes of Spain, simply use the JAXA star, the space agency's emblem, to do the same job with much more style and grace. The STS-127 patch was first revealed on CollectSPACE on 13 November 2008.

I'd been drawing mission patches for all sorts of things for years. It began in September 1998, when I drew the first of the relationship patches for Mr. Andy Black. That first patch, for the ill-fated Black-Schermerhorn 1998 mission isn't much to look at today, but it was a start. The original intention wasn't to keep going and do more patches for everyone's relationships. Instead. the original intent was based on a joke about the flight crew performing highly specialized, uh, "aerial training" in low-earth orbit which, given the rules of spaceflight, called for a mission patch. That backstory has long been thankfully ignored, but the legacy remains in the form of dozens of unique relationship patches and a fair bit of a back-log given how lazy I've been to work on new ones.

It's a matter of one thing leading to another and that same year I began working on the JG Enterprises website, a project that has never managed to meet my stringent requirements of completion. A fair number of program and mission emblems, along with rank insignia and other bureaucratic niceties had to be drawn up. While I'd always been interested in such emblems and insignia, I'd never really tried to render them on a computer so early results were sometimes a little slipshod, and Draw2, my program at the time, wasn't the best in the world. I eventually got Adobe Illustrator and redrew pretty much everything with several years' worth of experience behind me.

Things really took off since 2006, when I spun out many unique mission insignia for the Lederhosen-8 space station and for each of its Aegir crew flights. Drawing a unique design for 2007's JoshFest VIII led to retroactively coming up with insignia for past JoshFests and, starting with Easter Egg Workshop 2007, I decided that even movie days could benefit from event insignia. Trying to extend this fascination with mission patches to the real-world agency who had inspired me to do this in the first place was only logical.

And it stemmed out of working on the insignia for JoshFest IX....

In the middle of July 2008, I began working on that year's JoshFest patch. I had the design coming together but hadn't yet decided on all the details. I had the Sun and Earth on the top and bottom drawn but the center was empty. Before I came up with the notion of drawing me glaring menacingly down upon the Earth in the center I tried working on some NASA-ish variants.

JoshFest IX patch

The NASA variants of the JoshFest patch were never meant to be taken seriously. They were never meant to be seen by anyone connected with the space program. Instead, the point of the exercise was two-fold. First, to see how well the JoshFest patch design held up as a whole when subjected to different subject matters. Second, to investigate a buzzing in my head telling me to try and design a shuttle patch that met the unspoken rules set by previous shuttle patches. During the summer of 2005, I had redrawn a number of established shuttle insignia in Illustrator in an attempt to gain an appreciation for their general layout, what elements were required, and what key concepts did they all had in common. I learned a lot from that exercise but the JoshFest IX variants pretty much ignored all that.

STS-119 and STS-127 designs based on JoshFest IX patch

Both of these insignia were for upcoming missions whose official patches had not yet been revealed. The shuttle's robotic arm is handling the dedicated payloads on these two flights: the new solar arrays on STS-119 and the Japanese module on STS-127. The numbers at the bottom, 15A and 2J/A, are the payload designations. Each mission has two designations. The first is within the shuttle program, its Space Transportation System number (i.e., STS-127, the 127th assigned shuttle flight). The second refers to its payload or flight considerations (15A and 2J/A refer to their roles in ISS construction). Where the STS number is almost always shown, the payload number is included only intermittently. Both appeared on the 119 patch; only the STS number made it onto 127.

Clearly the JoshFest patch should stay the JoshFest patch. The variants are haphazardly arranged and the shuttle elements don't quite fit. The shape of the patch should be influenced by the artwork of the subject matter, which was not the case. In any event, these were't really serious attempts, so I didn't apply a whole lot of effort toward making them work.

The JoshFest IX patch didn't donate itself very well, and that's fine. However, while I had the file open working on drawing my head into the IX insignia, I noticed the 2002 patch also sitting there. That was one that I was extremely happy with. I liked its shape and, I thought, given its subject matter as a space scene, it just might work.

JoshFest III patch

Again, this was never a serious contender for anything official. I wouldn't try to submit a patch salvaged from something I drew for an entirely different project. A JoshFest patch, no matter how much I may like it, should always remain a JoshFest patch and not try to pass off for anything else. Still, these were only for practice given that I'd never drawn NASA-style mission patches before.

I did two separate variations on this theme, with two orientations for each. The first kept the arc of the Sun from the JoshFest patch, removing the Roman numeral "III" (indicating the third JoshFest). The arc also helped to make the inverted version look like a helmet for the astronauts' spacesuits.

JoshFest III variant - Style A patch designs

I liked the now-white arc, which still represented the Sun. It added some visual interest, filled up the design, and covered the ends of the flags. Those two flags arcing upwards represent the nations involved: the United States' shuttle flight and the Japanese payload. The two flags also represented a stylized form of the astronaut insignia, a common element in many patches. The red maple leaf recognizes Julie Payette's citizenship and flying under the auspices of the Canadian Space Agency.

JoshFest III variant - Style B patch designs

On this version I removed the Sun arc in an attempt to both simplify the design and remove any unnecessary ties to its JoshFest origins. The constellation Orion was added as a nod of the head towards the shuttle's successor, the Orion capsule. This is an element that's been cropping up more and more often since Orion was announced.

Satisfied with rearranging common elements on already-designed backgrounds, it was time to get original. It's better if you have an idea of where you want to go when you draw the border, which is not what I had been doing. Here's an arrangement of the elements being knocked together in an original design, though it still lacks any visual interest.

STS-127 uninteresting original design

Something is missing. Turning to the old pen and paper, I scribbled out this concept design. When in a jam it's sometimes easier to draw something quickly the old fashioned way than to waste a lot of time fussing over vectors only to scrap it as a stupid idea. In this case, I thought the fluttering flags background looked pretty good. Space patches like to use flags and, especially in this era of international cooperation, they're great at quickly showing which nations are involved in each mission. For example, I'm almost guaranteed to use them on space station patches given how many countries are usually represented by the crew. Notice that the launch date slipped by two months over the course of the year that followed, mostly due to STS-125's October delay.

STS-127 concept sketch, July 17, 2008

Drawing it up in Illustrator yielded a result I liked a lot.

STS-127 more interesting original design

As much as I liked this design I felt using the same stock drawing of the shuttle was a little cheap and didn't quite work. Drawing the shuttle's dorsal profile did the trick.

STS-127 finalized design

I remain happy with this version of the patch. I was almost hesitant to publish it here because, in doing so, the design could never be used on an official patch, but, with the 2011 end of the shuttle program within sight of this article's publication, there just wasn't any room left for this patch.

Finally closer to a NASA design mindset, I tried one more patch for STS-127. It's something that never really resolved the way I'd pictured it in my head but it does provide a simpler alternative. The three rays in the background are a more pronounced representation of the astronaut symbol.

STS-127, the other design

The boxy shape that appears in all these patches -- as a three-dimensional drawing in the earlier patches and in outline in the last -- is the Japanese Experiment Module's Exposed Facility (JEM EF). I could never quite come up with a better way of representing the mission's payload, this erratic piece of ungainly hardware. I wasn't thinking outside the box. That's why I praise Gagnon and Cartes' execution of reducing its complex structure to be represented by the JAXA star. I nearly slapped myself on the forehead when I saw that.

These what-ifs were fun to visualize. I never had any intention of trying to send them to NASA for consideration so I didn't apply the same amount of effort as I would a real contribution. They're a bit simple but that's to be expected. Not all experiments need to be fully fleshed out and polished final products.


Engaged 3 January 2015 | Updated 7 September 2017