Gene Dorr grew up in Maine during the golden age of space exploration; he currently resides in Massachusetts. Gene has an outstanding collection of space patches, and we spoke recently about his collection and its place in the cosmos.
ephemera: When did you become interested in space patches?
Dorr: If I tell you I was born in 1956, you can probably guess the rest: growing up during the height of the space race, I was--and continue to be--a space geek of the highest order. A lot of people my age fell under the spell of Gemini and Apollo. Author Andrew Chaikin for example, who wrote the best book there is on the Apollo era, A Man on the Moon. And actor Tom Hanks, who took Chaikin's book and turned it into the miniseries From the Earth to the Moon.
Anyway, in 1970, I discovered that Edmund Scientific Company offered Apollo patches--until then I didn't even know you could get the mission patches. So my first patch was an Apollo 13 patch, which I thought was just beautiful. I still have it, and it's still my favorite. Then I got the patch for each subsequent mission as it happened. I lost interest when the Shuttle started flying, because it seemed so pedestrian compared to the pioneering explorations of Apollo.
Over the years I lost most of the stuff I'd collected pertaining to spaceflight; but I still had my little stack of mission patches, and every now and then I would get them out and look at them. At some point--I forget when--I discovered the little gem of a book by Dick Lattimer called All We Did Was Fly To The Moon, which had the stories behind the patch designs. I thought that was fascinating, and it gave me a new appreciation for the patches.
Fast forward to 2000: I was taking some classes in web site design, and had to make a web site as a class project. The least geeky hobby I had was my little collection of space patches, so I thought I'd search the web and see how much information was out there about them. To my surprise, there was actually nothing at all, and I immediately decided that had to be my class project. I soon discovered that other people were into space patches too, and selling them on eBay. There were different kinds of patches, which I hadn't realized. I was intrigued, and started buying some. That's when I really started collecting patches. By the way, there are now several good sites about space patches.
ephemera: I was born a decade later, and things had cooled down a bit towards space exploration, but I was on the edge of that era, and I can understand the enthusiasm. What challenges or obstacles do you encounter in collecting? How do you overcome these challenges?
Dorr: Really, you can make collecting space patches as easy or as difficult as you want. Some collectors contend that the only patches worth collecting are flown patches. Obviously, because of the limited number of patches in this category--especially for pre-Shuttle patches--these are the most difficult to obtain. Unless you have deep pockets, it's not practical to participate in space patch collecting at this level.
Others collectors are less demanding, and will settle for patches that have been owned by astronauts. At this level, a part of the collecting is to include some sort of documentary evidence, such as a letter from the astronaut, or a photo of the astronaut with the patch, and you, too, if you can receive the patch in person. Unless you're gullible, there is simply no secondary market here. Unless you obtain a patch directly from the astronaut involved, it's next to impossible to definitively prove the connection between the documentation and a particular patch.
Collectors in the next tier only want patches from a given production batch, for example the patches that were produced to be put on the Biological Isolation Garments (BIGs) that the first three lunar crews had to wear immediately after splashdown; or the patches that a crew wore when their official portrait was taken. These are easier to verify because photographs of these patches exist, and the differences between different batches is usually fairly evident.
Yet another tier of collectors will settle for "vintage" patches--patches that were manufactured at the time of the flight. Depending on the patch, proving even this is not always easy.
At the lowest tier, you can purchase patches from any number of sources for any flight you want. There are no flight patches that aren't manufactured up to the present day. It's dead easy to get anything you want in this category.
Which brings me to something that strikes me as strange about space patch collecting: that some people not only collect these patches, but make new patches. An example: there a lot of Apollo patches to be had at reasonable prices--AB Emblem, Lion Brothers, embroidered patches by other manufacturers, beta-cloth patches, vinyl patches, and so on. But sometimes none of those patches is really faithful to the artwork of the patch designer. So collectors have new versions of these patches made that more closely match the artwork or the flown version of the patch. Another example: for some reason the big patch manufacturers never made any really good Gemini patches for the collector market, so several years ago a guy named Randy Wagner made some really nice Gemini patch reproductions. They are now collectible. And at the present time there is a project run by some collectors around the world who are collaborating by e-mail to make new embroidered Gemini patches that match as closely as possible the original Gemini patches--but they are also planning to incorporate a hallmark to identify these patches as reproductions.
Now I don't mean that this is strange per se--you can see the motivation for reproducing these patches. But do other "collectors" make reproductions? Is there a market for faux stamps, ersatz coins, or faked fruit wrappers? Sure, there's always an unscrupulous individual who will counterfeit a collectible to make money from unsuspecting collectors. But what other collectors produce their own ephemera and then collect them?
By the way, I should mention another collecting category, which is patch-related materials: such as the paintings by Lumen Winter, designer of the Apollo 13 patch. The original painting that inspired the patch was bought by Tom Hanks and gifted to Apollo 13 commander Jim Lovell. Hanks portrayed Lovell in the movie Apollo 13. But there's a derivative painting of which prints have been made, and if you're persistent you can track down one of those prints. I have one, and have framed it along with an Apollo 13 patch.
ephemera: Yeah, I love that movie. It's one of Hank's best. What are your favorite items in your collection?
Dorr: My favorite patch, as I mentioned before, is the first patch I ever acquired, an AB Emblem Apollo 13 patch. With its three galloping horses hauling the sun chariot of Apollo, the drama and visual artistry of Lumen Winter's design immediately hooked me on collecting patches. After all these years, it is still my favorite, never equaled in the multitude of designs that followed.
Amid the 100-plus patches designed for Shuttle flights, there are really only a handful that show truly inspired design. As an example, the design for STS-61 (the first flight to repair the ailing Hubble Space Telescope) is largely abstract lines and curves, suggesting optics and rays of light, rather than depicting the telescope literally. Most however, are based on depictions of space hardware, with a liberal dose of stars-and-stripes for those patriotic quasi-military astronauts. You have to admit, there is very little drama that can be eked out of a designs that center around the hardware of spaceflight. The famous science fiction artist Frank Kelly Freas is probably the only one to really achieve that, with his lovely sunburst design for the 1973 Skylab 1 mission–-unique, I think, in that it is actually far more beautiful in its embroidered form than in the original design artwork. Not surprising though, since if you read the article he wrote about the patch, you find that he designed it specifically with the embroidery process in mind.
When enumerating my favorite patches I simply can't omit the ones made for the Mars Exploration Rovers (MER) Spirit and Opportunity, that are based on the cartoon characters Duck Dodgers and Marvin the Martian. I'd really love to share these with your readers, but I don't want you to run afoul of the lawyers at Warner Brothers, who caused problems for people who reproduced these patches. Instead I'll point them to SpaceRef, which has the press release showing these patches.
And finally, among a lot of dross designed for the recent Soyuz ISS taxi missions, one stands out for its beauty--the TMA-4 patch designed by Luc van den Abeelen. The perspective view of the Soyuz is highly unusual; and the use of Eurostile Extended hearkens back to the early Apollo designs.
ephemera: What's your advice for achieving success as a space patch collector?
Dorr: Obviously, for space patches as for any field the most important trait is patience. I could give examples, but I'm sure any collector could. And persistence.
However I think that satisfaction is just as vital as success. You need to pick a level of collecting that is challenging, but not impossible. Part of that is focus and depth: my web site is more focused than my own physical collection--it concentrates on American manned spaceflight prior to the Shuttle era.
ephemera: What resources and tools do you recommend?
Dorr: Many of the resources are mentioned on my web site, but I'll recap the best ones here: All We Did Was Fly to the Moon by Dick Lattimer, and Relics of the Space Race by Russ Still.
On the Web:
For storage of patches, I've turned to the folks at Light Impressions a company that specializes in archival storage supplies for photographers. I use sleeves designed to hold CD-ROMs, which are just the right size for four-inch patches. They also offer various boxes and binders that I've found useful.
ephemera: Thanks, Gene. I'm really impressed with your knowledge about these patches and your passion for the subject. I know people who grew up in mid-century will really appreciate seeing these patches.