Designing an Uplifting End to NASA's Space Shuttle Program

From pencil sketches to crayon drawings, vague conceptsto professional-looking layouts, the 85 designs NASA received for a patchto symbolize the end of its space shuttle program varied as widely asthe past and present employees who created them.

That was exactly what the contest organizers had hoped wouldhappen.

"We had a really wide variety of people whoparticipated. We were really happy to see that," said Debbie Byerly,who led the patch contest as technicalassistant to shuttle program manager John Shannon. The entries, whichwere accepted between Oct. 15 and Dec. 1, came from multipleNASA centers spread across the nation, and from artists who ranged inprofession from technician to astronaut.

For John Shannon though, as the leader of the shuttle program,it was in the content of the designs that really impressed him.

"I was stunned," he told "What is reallyamazing to me, is how much emotion people have put in [to the patches],how much they care about the program and they really thought long and hardabout what should be in this patch to be representative or thematic ofwhat this program has meant to them and their kids and their parents andjust everybody. I've just been amazed."

That passion, said Shannon, is important especially now, asthe shuttle program is set to face what he believes will be its biggestchallenge: safely shutting down.

A difficult time

It would be easy to look at a patch contest and consider itonly as a means of extending NASA's public appearance, but for Shannon,the focus was solely on motivating those inside the program.

"Public outreach, we are all about that, we really wantto do that, but we're looking for ways to build up the spirits of the teamin this really difficult time," he explained.

"It is a little bit a bleak time right now. We're doinglayoffs right now, we've got another big layoff coming in February. We'regoing to lose 2,000 people here [at Johnson Space Center] in tenmonths, we're going to lose 4,000 people at [Kennedy Space Center] in tenmonths, but this [patch contest] is kind of a fun, uplifting thing totry to reflect back and think about what we have done. It gives youthat encouragement to finish up strong."

As currently planned and funded, NASA has five missionsremaining, all scheduled to launch next year, to complete theInternational Space Station (ISS). After the last flight, the 134th of theshuttle, lands, the agency will ground its orbiter fleet, and unlessotherwise directed by Congress and the President, refocus its mannedspace program on designing and building a new vehicle to take astronautsbeyond low-Earth orbit, back to the moon and elsewhere.

First though, NASA needs to safely fly out the remainingshuttle missions, which presents a new type of challenge.

"I think these five flights are going to be the mostdifficult flights we've ever flown," admitted Shannon, "becauseof the distractions and potential loss of focus. We are doingeverything in our power to make sure that we keep the team really focusedamongst all the distractions of what is going on [around them]."

"Because we are losing a lot of our coworkers, a lot ofthe hardware and training, and things that we've built up over 30 could be a very difficult environment if you let it be. So we'rereally concentrating on doing things for the team that is executingand producing the hardware to go fly the flights."

"Little things that say, 'we're all a big team here'and we're trying to pull together to finish up really strong, build a lotof esprit de corps and camaraderie among the team," he said.

An uplifting patch

Those 'little things' include a hall of fame wall at JohnsonSpace Center in Houston that replaced managers' profiles with teammembers' from around the agency; bookmarks being flown on the spaceshuttle with team group photos printed on their backs; the planneddistribution of 150,000 Spaceflight Awareness awards to program workers;and the current patch contest, which will fly the winning art on one ofthe last shuttle flights.

"We were trying to think of things we could do thatcould help morale and would be kind of fun and uplifting, but we also wantedto reach out to everybody to let them know that we understand that ifyou worked here 30 years ago or if you flew the shuttle in the '89-'90timeframe that we care about what you think and we wanted them toprovide their input into this too," said Byerly of the impetus behindthe patch contest.

Even Shannon, who is serving as a judge, was tempted toenter.

"I kind of thought about it. I kind of thought aboutworking on it with my kids and then I saw some of the patches coming inthrough the door and thought, 'Nah, we're done.' We'll probably stilldo it with the kids just for fun, but no I did not enter as it would notbe fair as a judge."

Joining Shannon at the judges' table are Mike Moses, theshuttle's integration manager at Kennedy Space Center in Florida; SteveCash, manager of the shuttle's propulsion office at Marshall SpaceFlight Center in Alabama; Leroy Cain, Shannon's deputy for theshuttle program; and John Casper, associate manager of the shuttleprogram and a former astronaut who flew four times aboard the shuttle.

Together, they will pick 15 out of the 85patch designs to be posted to an internal NASA website for a voteamong the employees from Jan. 11 through Jan. 29.

"We're struggling with coming up with just 15 to put onthe web and I think it will be a lot of fun to watch the totals,"said Shannon.

"The lobbying to be in the top 15 has already started,but from years of being a chili cook-off judge, I've built up myimmunities," he joked.

"We purposely did not put the names or where the[artists] are from on the artwork for the judging or for the people'schoice because we did not want to influence the judges," addedByerly.

Ultimately, the decision will be left to the judges.

"The leadership of the program will pick the finalpatch. It may be the one that is the people's choice but then again, maybenot, but we'll end up flying both," said Shannon.

According to Byerly, they hope to have the judges make theirselection sometime in February so they can manifest the artwork and get itflown before the shuttle retires.

"I know that Johnson Space Center would like to producet-shirts, coffee mugs, coasters and all kinds of things with the [winning]patch on it," she said. "We're working with the othercenters, with their exchange programs, to see if they would like to do thesame."

"We'll make a big deal out of it," assuredShannon, "but we're not sure yet what that big deal will be."

Clickthrough to collectSPACE to see all 85 designs submitted inNASA's Space Shuttle Commemorative Patch contest.

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Robert Z. Pearlman Editor, Contributor

Robert Pearlman is a space historian, journalist and the founder and editor of, an online publication and community devoted to space history with a particular focus on how and where space exploration intersects with pop culture. Pearlman is also a contributing writer for and co-author of "Space Stations: The Art, Science, and Reality of Working in Space” published by Smithsonian Books in 2018. He previously developed online content for the National Space Society and Apollo 11 moonwalker Buzz Aldrin, helped establish the space tourism company Space Adventures and currently serves on the History Committee of the American Astronautical Society, the advisory committee for The Mars Generation and leadership board of For All Moonkind. In 2009, he was inducted into the U.S. Space Camp Hall of Fame in Huntsville, Alabama. In 2021, he was honored by the American Astronautical Society with the Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History.