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Designing Space Art That Spans Generations

Tim Gagnon

The space industry is made up of a lot more than just rocket scientists. From sewing technicians working on space suits to commentators sharing rocket launches on air with the public, thousands of people with different skill sets help make space happen.

Artist Tim Gagnon was able to find his place in the space industry through the design of mission patches. These logos for each mission become an important piece of history representing space expeditions. They are put on everything from pins to brochures to spacecraft.

We spoke to Tim about how he got into this unique career, and how anyone can combine their passion for art and science.

1. What initially sparked your interest in space?

A fascination with space exploration came early as did an interest in art. Like many others of my generation, I remember watching the missions of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo on a small black and white television with “rabbit ears” that could receive few broadcast stations. In 1972 I wrote to my U.S. Senator asking if he would obtain an invitation for my dad and me to see Apollo 17 launch. Amazingly, he did.

2. How did you realize your passions for space and art could combine?

During the visit to KSC (Kennedy Space Center) for Apollo 17, I learned that an outside artist was asked by the crew to paint the mission patch. The artist was Robert McCall. I decided then and there that this was how I could contribute to the space program.

3. What was it like creating your first mission patch?

Well, I began writing to astronauts in 1973. In 1985, Robert Crippen invited me to submit designs for the first shuttle mission to launch from Vandenberg, California, but that mission was canceled after Challenger. Finally, in 2004, John Phillips selected me to help design the International Space Station (ISS) Expedition 11 patch. My dream came true and it only took 31 years. It was as much fun as you could imagine.

4. How many mission patches have you created now?

After the Expedition 11 patch was unveiled, I received an email from Dr. Jorge Cartes of Madrid who congratulated me and expressed that he too shared my dream of designing a mission patch. I thanked him and responded that if the opportunity ever arose again, we would collaborate. 

Between 2004 and 2018, we worked with five space shuttle crews, 13 additional ISS crews, the End of Shuttle Program competition (I placed 3rd), and the principal investigators of the Twins Study. We have also created hundreds of commemoratives that celebrate the space program. Most recently we helped five flight directors and some other NASA teams with their emblems.

5. Now I understand astronauts get a lot of input in the creation of mission patches. What is it like to have astronauts as creative partners?

The secret to my success is I try to step back and understand this is not my patch. It is their patch. I can make recommendations based on my experience, but they make all the decisions. And even if I don’t agree with the decision, they are going to be the ones wearing it. So, they have to be satisfied with it. To be able to have all those memories of the interactions and all that—it is fantastic.

6. How does it feel having contributed to the visual story of space?

Space exploration has generously provided inspiration ever since I was a boy, basically all my life. Now I am curating my work so that my grandsons will each have the patches and paintings I created. Five hundred years from now one of my descendants could research a spaceflight and see the art I helped create. My art and imagination going where I never will? Priceless.

7. Do you have any advice for young artists who also love space?

The job of an artist in the space program is to envision what’s coming and inspire people. To come up with a cool graphic that people hang on their walls. That kind of work is just as important as anything else. 

My dream took 31 years to come true because of the obstacles I placed in my own way. I succeeded because of my passion, persistence, and a bit of talent. My advice to young artists would be to ignore those who say you are not good enough or will never make it. Believe in yourself and never, ever give up.

Learn More

Mission Patch


The Space Store


Our World: Mission Patches


Every Space Crew Needs a Mission Patch


10 Things You Didn’t Know About NASA Patches


Nine Space Logos Designs Tell Story of Human Exploration


Graphic Artist on the Final Frontier


Creepy, Kitchy, and Geeky Patches for US Spy Satellites


Space X Mission patches