WEAVERVILLE, N.C. — While NASA and SpaceX prepare to launch four people to the International Space Station on Monday from Florida's Kennedy Space Center, a North Carolina company has done its part for the Crew-6 mission.
There's one crucial thing every launch needs before leaving the planet — a mission patch. The coaster-sized piece of embroidery adorns the crew's flight suits, each unique to the mission at hand, and has a decades-long history.
The story of the patch that is sewn into the historical fabric of spaceflight begins in a factory situated in the shadows of North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains, robotic sewing needles rise and plunge at blurring-fast speeds, weaving blue, orange and black thread into a three-and-a-half inch circular patch.
A-B Emblem is a manufacturing company in Weaverville, N.C. that's been family run for five generations. It has produced mission patches for NASA since Apollo 11 — the first lunar landing mission that took Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to the surface.
Owner Bernie Conrad said the first ones were manufactured on embroidery looms and hand threaded. Now, the process is mostly automated. "We started off with machines that were like eight heads, 12 heads, now we're up to 44 heads," he said over the sounds of the embroidery machines on his factory floor. "God knows where we're gonna go [in the] next few years."
The origins of mission patches date back to spaceflight's early days. In the Mercury program, astronauts named their capsules 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. "He came to NASA and proposed to them and said 'let us at least personalize something about our mission. Let's design a patch,'" said Robert Pearlman, a space historian and editor of collectSPACE.com.
That mission aimed to set a space endurance record of eight days. Its mission patch was a Conestoga wagon with the crew's names, Gordon Cooper and his crewmate Pete Conrad, embroidered below. And 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 stuck. "Most of the crews took it upon themselves to at least come up with a basic design," said Pearlman. "They worked with an artist, either at one of the contractors or at NASA to perfect and make it into a usable patch."
Through Apollo and the Space Shuttle programs, the practice of patches continued. Even today, astronauts play a crucial role in the creation of their own mission patch, sometimes drawing the artwork for the final piece.
"The crew patch is really special for so many reasons," said NASA astronaut Woody Hoburg, who is piloting the SpaceX Dragon capsule on the upcoming Crew-6 mission. His crew's mission patch is a blue naval ship with a Dragon as its figurehead, navigating the constellation Draco. Dragon and Draco honor hardware on the crew's capsule.
To Hoburg, the patch represents more than the crew of four. It recognizes the thousands of people working on their flight.
"It's great to have patches and be able to hand them out to 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 seats."
And they're not just for those directly involved on the mission. Patch collecting is a wildly popular hobby for space enthusiasts.
"There are definitely enthusiastic patch collectors," said Pearlman. "It's a really easy way to enter a hobby, you can buy a replica of any of the U.S. Space patches for $5 or less, maybe a little bit more in the gift shops." There are also patches that have flown in space that go for more.
A-B Emblem's Bernie Conrad said 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.
"If we go to Mars, in other words, this goes through a period of time where it's this lull, but something like [a human mission will] reignite the interest," said Conrad, "or if we went back to the moon."
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.