With just six space shuttle flights remaining - the next scheduled to lift off next week - NASA has invited its past and present space program workers to design an emblem to mark the end of the shuttle era. The winning design will be flown on the shuttle before the fleet retires.
The patch design contest, which began Oct. 15 and runs through Dec. 1, takes its inspiration from a tradition among shuttle crew members.
"What we wanted to do was do something similar to what the astronauts do with their patches for their flights," said Debbie Byerly, who is heading up the contest as technical assistant to shuttle program manager John Shannon. "We want the employees, or the people who worked here within the last 30 years, to help us design this 'end of program' patch."
The shuttle, which made its first flight in April 1981, is set to be retired after its 134th mission, currently targeted for launch in Sep. 2010. Over the program's 30 years, the five shuttle orbiters have deployed satellites, planetary probes and observatories, including the Hubble Space Telescope, as well as visited the Russian Mir space station and led the assembly of the International Space Station (ISS).
The latter is still on-going with STS-129, the sixth to last shuttle mission scheduled to launch to the ISS on Nov. 16 with a six-person crew.
The shuttle's legacy is also represented by the more than 350 people who by the end of the program will have flown to space aboard Columbia, Challenger, Discovery, Atlantis and Endeavour.
Byerly said she hopes the patches submitted will capture some of that history in whatever shape they may take.
"I didn't put any templates out there," she said. "I wanted [to challenge] people to think outside the box. I wanted them to provide a short narrative as to how the patch was designed, what is included in the patch and what it means to them."
That meaning may at least be partially influenced by what role the patch designer plays within NASA. The contest is open to all who work for the federal agency at any of its 16 centers and facilities, as well as all those who work for the myriad of companies that support NASA's activities as its contractors.
"If any retired people would like to submit a patch design, we'd be more than delighted," added Byerly.
Other than being employed at some time for the U.S. civil space program, there are no other requirements for entry, including any artistic skills.
"It really is an amateur contest," Byerly described. "We have encouraged everybody, it doesn't matter if you are a graphic artist, we just want your rendition of what the shuttle program means to you and how you would depict that in a patch."
NASA's graphic artists will assist by adapting the winning concept for production.
To select a winner, or winners, Byerly plans two panels. A group of judges recruited from the various NASA centers will identify their favorite emblem while a vote is also held among the employees.
"We intend to place [the designs] on the web and have a 'people's choice' award," Byerly said. "This was designed and presented to be for employee morale. The people who will be voting on it will be the employees."
"We'll have the top three prizes and then display all the patches and do something nice for everyone who submits something," she added.
The top winner will see their design become a part of the legacy for which their patch is intended to honor.
"The person whose art is chosen, we will fly that artwork and we will manufacture the patches and then they will get a flown patch along with a big presentation case with their artwork in it," Byerly told collectSPACE.com.
"So it should be fun for them and it gives them a chance to be a part of shuttle history."
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