August 24, 2009
— Two embroidered patches designed for space shuttle Discovery's mission to the International Space Station beginning this week have gone from being simple souvenirs sold at NASA-themed gift shops to rare collector items selling for as much as 35 times their retail price.
One of the patches, the STS-128 crew's official mission insignia, became more collectible after it was discovered that its depiction of the station was missing a module: the European Space Agency's (ESA) "Columbus" lab, which was particularly notable given the inclusion of a European astronaut on-board Discovery.
The other patch features the face of comedian Stephen Colbert, whose name was lent to the astronauts' treadmill launching with STS-128. Now sold out after its production run was cut short due to licensing issues, second-hand sales and auctions are commanding astronomical results.
Both patches have examples packed onboard Discovery for the 13-day mission, which is scheduled to liftoff from Kennedy Space Center at
1:36 a.m. EDT on Tuesday 12:59 p.m. EDT on Friday.
The missing module
Columbus-less and -added patches (collectSPACE)
STS-128 mission specialist Pat Forrester is no stranger to designing space patches. In addition to being the artist behind the STS-128 patch, he also created the patches for his two prior space missions (flights he shared with STS-128 commander Rick "CJ" Sturckow and in the case of STS-117 in 2007, fellow STS-128 mission specialist Danny Olivas).
The difficulty Forrester says, is finding new ideas while still representing the mission they are flying.
"It becomes a challenge on the 128th shuttle flight," he told collectSPACE, "as you look around the halls and see some of the other patches, looking for something a little bit different."
For STS-128, Forrester chose an oval-shape wrapped in ribbons that depicted Discovery carrying the "Leonardo" Multi-Purpose Logistic Module (MPLM), a cargo carrier for delivering supplies and new science platforms from the Earth to the space station. Bathed in blue and yellow, the emblem seemed to also mimic the colors of the Swedish flag, perhaps in tribute to Swedish spacewalker Christer Fuglesang.
"It wasn't until later on that we kind of looked at it and said 'wow there are a lot of similarities' with these colors," recalled Forrester. "I was just looking for more blues, a lot of the [past] patches weren't blue."
Similarly, it wasn't Forrester's original intention to depict a specific space station configuration when he sketched the concept for the patch.
"When I sketch an ISS, it looks a little bit like what you do with a crayon; it wasn't in any way supposed to show any detail. It was basically just some solar arrays and a mass in the middle of gray," he said.
It fell to one of NASA's graphic artists to adapt Forrester's sketch to digital art and in doing so said the astronaut, a station design was selected from art already created. The crew saw it and approved the use "but never gave it any detailed [look] because it was not supposed to represent the exact space station."
Europe's Columbus module was added to the patch after it was noticed missing from the emblem's ISS. (collectSPACE)
Production of the patches began before someone did take a detailed look and noticed something was missing: the European laboratory Columbus.
"ESA was quick to pick up on the fact that the Columbus module was not there," explained Forrester.
The art was promptly revised to include the module but it was too late for the patches: samples that the crew wore during training and those shipped to souvenir shops were a module shy from a correct ISS.
Traditionally, NASA would order new patches to be made upon discovering the error, but it was one of Forrester's previous patches that drove the delay.
"By the time we launched, we were on our fourth mission patch for STS-117 because the names changed -- we went through a few crew [changes]," Forrester described. "I think the [Astronaut] Office realized that we can't keep printing a thousand patches and then change them three times during the training flow. So the office no longer orders patches until we are getting ready to fly."
The astronauts received the Columbus-amended patches about two weeks ago.
"I believe that all the patches we will be wearing will have [Columbus]," Forrester said.
The company that produces the patches for the crew, AB Emblem, also began shipping revised patches to souvenir shops though supplies of the older, now incorrect design were found in shops at the Kennedy Space Center before Discovery's launch. As with past mistake patches, these Columbus-less badges will grow in desire as collectibles.
A good example of a discontinued patch becoming a hot collector's item can be found in the other patch that was issued to commemorate the STS-128 mission.
After 15 bids, a COLBERT patch sells for $178.50 (eBay)
Among the ISS equipment Discovery is delivering is the Combined Operational Load Bearing External Resistance Treadmill, or COLBERT. The astronaut exercise device was named after the comedian host of Comedy Central's parody news show "The Colbert Report," Stephen Colbert after his name won a NASA poll to title the station's next module.
As first reported by collectSPACE earlier this month, a patch featuring Colbert's likeness was abruptly pulled off the market due to a misunderstanding of how the insignia was to be used. While a decal of the design will adorn the treadmill in space and at least four of the patches are on Discovery for the STS-128 mission, Comedy Central did not intend for the emblem to be sold.
A few weeks after stores' existing supplies of the patch sold out, the once $5 souvenir started selling on eBay for as much as $180. As of the date of this article, of the few patches to be offered at auction, two had topped $100 in bids, with another was being sold for a "Buy It Now" price of $175.