August 3, 2009
— Nearly a month before the payload it celebrates is scheduled to launch to space, a collectible embroidered patch has sold out, with no plans for it to be produced again.
From the moment it was revealed last April, the insignia celebrating NASA's next space station-bound astronaut exercise device was in demand, which might have been considered unusual if it wasn't for the fact that the design featured both the name and cartoon likeness of comedian Stephen Colbert, star of Comedy Central's "The Colbert Report" parody talk show.
The insignia came as part of a consolation prize of sorts, after Colbert staged a write-in campaign to win a NASA poll as to what to name the International Space Station's (ISS) next connecting module. Despite getting the most votes, "Colbert" was set aside for "Tranquility", a name NASA deemed was more appropriate.
To recognize Colbert's effort to draw new attention to their activities however, NASA announced it was naming the ISS's new astronaut exercise equipment after him: the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill (COLBERT). Its emblem, which will be affixed to the device in space, depicted the comedian running on the treadmill.
Fans of both the TV and space programs expressed their desire to own the insignia, sharing their longing on social networking websites and on the Colbert Nation forum, an online meeting place for the show's loyal viewers. And it didn't take very long for their wishes to be granted: just a month later, the patch hit store shelves at NASA visitor centers and through space collectible retailers.
Made by the same North Carolina company that produces the patches the astronauts wear in space, the COLBERT patch was not intended to be a limited edition, but that is what it has become, with far fewer in existence than any other of the company's space shuttle patches.
The COLBERT insignia being affixed to the treadmill before being launched to space. (Credit: NASA)
AB Emblem began production of the COLBERT patch after seeing the insignia on NASA's website. The art is credited on the site as originating from the agency, which was accurate. NASA hired Media Fusion of Washington, DC, to develop the design, under a contract they had to perform graphic design and communications work.
Under most situations, the credit to NASA would indicate the image was in the public domain and free to use.
Most NASA insignia however, do not include depictions of identifiable people. Under its posted policies, the space agency cautions that if its image or photo to be used is for commercial purposes and includes someone who can be recognized, then permission should be sought from that person.
"It does feature his face and so there are usability rights," explained Jacob Keaton, space station program analyst and NASA's manager for the Name the Node Contest. "[Colbert] has to sign off on its use."
NASA had tried to arrange for expanded use of the design but talks with Comedy Central stalled.
"They were okay with us using it on the treadmill, actually physically putting it on the treadmill that was going up to the space station, but we never came to a full agreement on exactly what else we could do with it," said Keaton.
AB Emblem wasn't aware of that, but once they were and had heard from Comedy Central, they ceased the patch's production.
"They said [the insignia] was never intended to be used for retail," said James Melley, national sales manager for AB Emblem.
By then however, the company had sold and shipped a small first run of the patches to customers including the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida, Space Center Houston in Texas as well as to online specialty retailers including The Space Store and Spaceflight Now.
"It was definitely one of our quickest sellers," said Justin Ray, editor of SpaceflightNow.com.
Ray's store, as well as the Kennedy gift shop and The Space Store all report being sold out and have removed the patch from their websites. Space Center Houston said on Monday they had only two of the patches left.
A search on eBay.com turned up only two listings for the patch, one with eight available, the other with "more than 10". Each was priced at less than $5 each, which was in line with what the now sold-out retailers had charged.
When reached for comment, a spokesperson for Comedy Central was not immediately aware of any plans to offer the patch or other logo items for sale in the future.
The COLBERT patch listed on eBay for $4.49. (Credit: eBay)
Most of the space patches that AB Emblem produces are open edition, which means that when they sell out, they just make more. WIth the COLBERT patch discontinued, space patch collectors -- and fans of the show -- may drive interest, and in turn, the price, higher.
"I do have one and I probably should have ordered more," said Bill Hunt, editor of TheDigitalBits.com, a DVD-related website, and an experienced space patch collector. "I am a Colbert fan and I got a patch for that reason, but as a space collector, it is now an interesting curiosity."
According to Hunt, now that the patch is a closed edition, he would expect more patch collectors and Colbert fans to want it. "It wouldn't surprise me to see that price go up on eBay pretty dramatically."
Interest is expected to further rise as NASA launches the COLBERT aboard space shuttle Discovery with the crew of STS-128, currently targeted for August 25.
For their part, Melley says he wishes AB Emblem could meet that demand with patches, even if the proceeds were going to a charity of Colbert's choice.
NASA would go one step further.
"We at NASA would have loved to have made thousands and thousands of these and given them to everyone," said Keaton. "For various legal issues, we just couldn't do it."