North Carolina company designs every NASA space mission patch Since the first days of the space program, astronauts wear a special patch specific to each mission. A small North Carolina company has designed them all since the Apollo lunar launches.

Every space crew needs a mission patch. This company has designed NASA's for 50 years

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A crew of four people is set to take off for the International Space Station on Sunday. NASA and SpaceX are working to prepare the rocket and capsule. But there's one critical thing every launch needs before leaving the planet - a mission patch. Brendan Byrne of member station WMFE brings us the story of the patches sewn into the historical fabric of space flight.

BRENDAN BYRNE, BYLINE: In a factory situated in the shadows of the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, robotic sewing needles rise and plunge at blurring fast speeds, weaving blue, orange and black thread into a 3 1/2 inch circular patch.

ANDREW NAGLE: We don't always have a NASA patch running, but we got one running right now.

BYRNE: Oh, cool.

NAGLE: So Expedition 67, which - as you would know, that is my current favorite patch.

BYRNE: Andrew Nagle is the co-CEO of A-B Emblem, a manufacturing company that's been in the family for five generations. Since Apollo 11, the mission that took Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the lunar surface, this company has provided patches for NASA. Owner Bernie Conrad says the first ones were manufactured on embroidery looms, hand-threaded. Now the process is mostly automated.

BERNIE CONRAD: We started off with machines that were, like, eight heads, 12 heads. Now we're up to 44 heads. God knows what it's going to go to in the next years.

BYRNE: The origins of mission patches date back to space flight's early days. In the Mercury program, astronauts named their capsule as a way to personalize the mission. During NASA's Gemini program, that tradition went away. Gemini astronaut Gordon Cooper still wanted to do something, says Robert Pearlman, historian and editor of

ROBERT PEARLMAN: He came to NASA and proposed to them and said, well, let us at least personalize something about our mission. Let's design a patch.

BYRNE: That mission aimed to set a space endurance record of eight days. Its mission patch was a Conestoga wagon with the crew's names, Cooper and his crewmate Pete Conrad, embroidered below. And Pearlman says hidden beneath some fabric sewn into the patch was the inscription eight days or bust, which only was revealed once the capsule returned successfully. The tradition of the crew designing each patch continued through Apollo and the shuttle program. Even today, astronauts play a crucial role, sometimes even drawing the artwork for the final piece.

WOODY HOBURG: The crew patch is really special for so many reasons.

BYRNE: NASA astronaut Woody Hoburg is piloting the SpaceX Dragon capsule on the upcoming Crew-6 mission. His mission patch is a blue naval ship with a dragon as its figurehead, navigating the constellation Draco. Dragon and Draco - a call to the crew's capsule. The patch, says Hoburg, represents more than the crew of four. It recognizes the thousands of people working on their flight.

HOBURG: It's great to have patches and be able to, like, hand them out to the teams that have supported us along the way. It's a little memento that we find meaningful and therefore has meaning when we hand it out to people or wear it on our flight suits.

BYRNE: And they're not just for those directly involved on the mission. Patch collecting is a wildly popular hobby for space enthusiasts. A-B Emblem's Bernie Conrad says when the shuttle program ended in 2011, interest in patches faded. But as new human missions like the Crew-6 take flight, he's optimistic that patch passion will return.

CONRAD: If we go to Mars - in other words, this could go through a period of time where it's - there's this lull. But something like that - that would again ignite the interest or if we went back to the moon, even.

BYRNE: With NASA planning a human mission to the moon this decade, Conrad's company will get the chance to make another lunar patch just like a half-century ago. For NPR News, I'm Brendan Byrne in Weaverville, N.C.


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