In October 2022, an updated ESA astronaut patch celebrated the joining of ESA’s newest Associate Member, Slovakia. The new patch adds the Slovakian flag to a design that has evolved over the decades to represent ESA’s growing space family.
On 13 October 2022, Slovakia’s Associate membership came into effect, cementing a long cooperation with ESA that goes back to 2010. This means that ESA now has 22 Member States and four Associate Members, as well as Cooperation Agreements with four more EU states and Canada. Slovakia’s membership affirms ESA’s strong commitment to making space for everyone.
International cooperation has been at the heart of ESA since it was founded in 1975. Having started out with 10 members, ESA has steadily grown to become Europe’s comprehensive space agency, helping its members work together to further their shared interests in the space sector.
ESA’s agency patch, as worn by all ESA astronauts, celebrates this unity of purpose and represents the countries that collectively make up ESA. Known informally as the ‘flags patch’, its design has just been updated to add in Slovakia’s flag.
The history of this ESA patch tells the visual story of ESA’s growth as an agency. The very first patch, used from 1975–1983, was circular in shape, just like the latest patch. However, it featured just the 11 flags of ESA’s members at that time (Ireland joined the 10 original members at the end of 1975). The flags were arranged in an arc over the original ESA ‘thumbprint’ logo.
The circular ‘flags patch’ was the first ESA astronaut patch to be worn in space. During his 1983 Spacelab-1 mission, ESA astronaut Ulf Merbold wore this agency patch on the left shoulder of his flight suit, together with a rectangular blue patch sporting the ESA name on the upper right of the chest (NASA had rules about the placement and type of patches that astronauts from partner agencies could wear on NASA flight suits).
The astronaut patch continued to evolve as the agency grew, both to accommodate more flags for more European Member States, but also to incorporate new logo designs as ESA’s corporate visual identity evolved.
From 1986–1995 the circular shaped patch gave way to a larger rectangular format. The 1986 version had 13 flags, but this was followed by updated and restyled versions between 1995 and 2015. These featured from 14 to 22 flags as more new Member States joined.
In 2019 the patch literally came full circle, with a redesign that returned to the circular format of the original 1975 version.
This new circular patch was smaller than the rectangular patches preceding it, which made it more comfortable to wear on a flight suit. Its circular arrangement of flags also made further additions easier, which was a smart move as ESA continued growing.
First issued in 2020, the new patch had 25 flags and was the first to feature Canada as a Cooperating State, as well as being the first to include Associate Members, adding in flags for Slovenia and Latvia who had recently joined ESA.
Astronaut patches are an essential part of ESA’s visual identity and space history. When ESA astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti made her first spacewalk in July 2022, the first made by a European woman, she was also the first ESA astronaut to wear the ESA flags patch during a spacewalk. However, by the time Samantha returned from her second mission to the International Space Station her ESA patch needed upgrading to one with an extra flag for Slovakia.
Whether worn by ESA astronauts on historic space missions, or during public appearances on the ground, patches are small but important symbols. They make a clear visual statement about ESA as a multinational, diverse and cooperative organisation, and proudly showcase Europe’s ever-growing space family.