Artist Tim Gagnon may have landed his dream job, but it took him 31 years of tireless persistence to get there. As a child, he says he was “lucky enough to have witnessed the beginning of human space exploration”, watching the launch of Alan Shepard (the first American to travel into space) and others from Project Mercury (the United States’ first human spaceflight programme) on his black-and-white TV “with the rabbit ears”. From then on, Tim was a lifelong space fanatic. He always dressed up as an astronaut for Halloween – ”I was that kid, the nerd of the group,” he says. Aged 16, in 1972, he wrote to his senator to ask if he could arrange for Nasa to invite him to an Apollo rocket launch, and amazingly they agreed. So Tim and his dad went to Florida to watch the launch of Apollo 17, the last mission to the moon. It was on this fateful trip that Tim learned of the existence of mission patch artists and designers, the people who create the little embroidered patches that go on Nasa spacesuits. This discovery was the first domino in a three-decade mission of his own: to design a Nasa patch.
“On that trip I learned that the person who did the mission patch was an external artist, not someone employed by Nasa,” says Tim. “ It was Robert McCall, someone whose work I knew already – he had done artwork for 2001: A Space Odyssey, and painted huge murals at the National Air and Space Museum.” Finding out that artists like McCall and Paul Calle, another of his creative idols, could contribute to the space programme was a lightbulb moment for Tim. “I’m a left brain guy, always have been. You’d never want me to calculate trajectories, because you will not get to where you think you’re going!” he laughs. “But if you want to wear a patch while you’re going there, I can do that.”
So, from around the age of 17, Tim began writing to astronauts, asking if he could work on their mission patches. He’d always been an avid illustrator and artist, yet as a self-confessed “stubborn teenager” he didn’t consider art school. Instead, he wanted to get a job and make his own money. Ending up with a career in logistics, Tim continued to make artwork as a hobby, always inspired – of course – by space. He painted a portrait of Eileen Collins, the first woman to command a shuttle mission, and donated it to her hometown, where it hung in the city hall. His portrait of Apollo 13 astronaut Jack Swigert, who had lived in Tim’s hometown, still hangs in the Connecticut Air National Guard headquarters. Meanwhile he met his wife, had a daughter, and years later somehow persuaded them to move from Connecticut to Florida, purely so he could be closer to the space programme and see rockets take off whenever he wanted. I’m guessing they understood, better than anyone, that Tim’s obsession with space wasn’t going anywhere.
“Here was something that started in my head and now astronauts are going to wear it to launch into space. I mean, that's heady stuff.”Tim Gagnon
Then finally, in 2004, one of the astronauts Tim wrote to said yes; John L. Phillips asked him to design the emblem for the Expedition 11 mission to the International Space Station. Tim designed a logo showing the space station alongside the number 11, with rocket plumes emerging from the numerals emblazoned with stars and stripes, set against the background of the Earth as well as the “dazzling” sun and stars. Tim explains that he tries to be “as realistic as possible when it comes to his creative approach to these emblems and patches… I try to create what I see”. In contrast, he says some Nasa insignia can be more impressionistic, and though he appreciates it, it’s just not his style. Tim believes that the public’s enduring interest in the graphics and visuals around space programmes and Nasa is because these astronauts are “the tip of the arrow – only around 600 people have flown in space in the history of the world” and “this artwork allows all of us to go with them.” He adds: “So if I create an image, I imagine, if I was in orbit getting ready to dock at the space station, what would it look like? I want to put the viewer there.”
Since then, Tim has designed emblems and patches for five space shuttle crews, 14 space station crews and four Nasa flight directors. Each time, Tim chats with the astronauts – his clients and collaborators – about their ideas and researches into the mission (and chats concepts with his frequent collaborator Spanish artist Jorge Cartes), before sending over pen-and-ink sketches. They feedback with ideas and suggestions, and Tim tries to weave them in. Though, he does sometimes have to push back if he knows, from experience, it’s not going to work. “Astronauts are type A personalities, but they’re logical. If you present a practical argument they will consider it,” he says. Humbly, Tim believes the reason he’s enjoyed such success as a patch artist is because “I remember when all is said and done, it’s not my patch, it’s their patch. They’re the ones risking their lives, they’re the ones wearing it, so if they’re happy my job is done.” As can be expected, there’s a long list of specifications and rules to follow, such as using block lettering to list the crew members’ names and sometimes a slogan, and avoiding any kind of visual symbolism that might be misinterpreted.
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Patch design by Tim Gagnon and Jorge Cartes; Image courtesy of Nasa
Patch design, Tim says, is a unique challenge “because you have to fit the story of that mission into such a little canvas”. The logo he creates is used on everything from print ephemera to marketing and stamps, but the key output is the four-inch embroidered patch for the astronauts’ uniform, wherein this epic feat of humanity has to be depicted on a tiny scale. It’s the golden egg for anyone wanting to design for the space programme. “I could not wait for my first commissioned mission patch to be embroidered,” Tim says, “because here was something that started in my head and now astronauts are going to wear it to launch into space. I mean that's heady stuff.” And once it’s flown in space, that’s the symbol of that mission forever. “500 years from now, one of my descendants researching a mission from 2005 to now, may come across something I created.”
To date, Tim’s favourite patch to have worked on, apart from his first design for the Expedition 11, and a special commission for the film Searching for Skylab, was for the STS 133, the space shuttle Discovery’s last mission to the International Space Station. In 2010, the mission crew had invited the aforementioned (and by then legendary) Robert McCall to create artwork for the patch, a symbolic commission as he had designed the very first shuttle mission patch in 1981. McCall agreed, painted two watercolours and shipped them to the crew on a Friday. He passed away the following morning at 90 years old. Days after the crew learned of his death, they received the paintings, which were “beautiful but not quite ready to be a mission patch,” Tim describes. So Tim was invited to finish the job. “It felt like getting the paintbrush from the Pope to finish the Sistine Chapel,” he says. “So I don't ever say I designed the 133 patch, I just got McCall's artwork over the goal line. But the compliment of working on it was enough.”
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Patch design by Tim Gagnon and Jorge Cartes; Image courtesy of Nasa
As for his favourite patch design, Tim says it’s “the next one. I’m not finished yet. If I could only do one more patch I would love to do an Artemis mission, and have my artwork go to the moon.”
Offering advice to young artists and designers who hold the same dream to create for Nasa, Tim says “don’t be stubborn, go to art school, learn as much about it as you can. I started with pen and ink, I did this with crayon,” he quips, holding up a sketch of one of his first designs from 1973 (below) on our video call. “I was very lucky,” he adds. “Persistence paid off and I kept creating, but they could’ve said no and I could still be a frustrated old man to this day! Luckily they saw something, they gave me a shot, I worked at it and I’ve gotten better. But if you want to do something so bad then don’t let go of that. God forbid it takes 31 years, but I'm happy!”
Patch designs by Tim Gagnon and Jorge Cartes; Image courtesy of Nasa