The Creepy, Kitschy and Geeky Patches of US Spy Satellite Launches

There may be method to the madness behind the outlandish designs of the National Reconnaissance Office mission patches

Purple Sorceress
Enthusiasts examining the patch for NROL-35 think the trident, fire and breeze through the character’s hair might represent the elements—water, fire and wind. “What that has to do with the actual payload, however, is anyone’s guess,” says space historian Robert Pearlman. National Reconnaissance Office

A purple-haired sorceress holding a fireball. A three-headed dragon wrapping its claws around the world. A great raptor emerging from the flames.

No, these are not characters from a Magic: The Gathering deck. They are avatars depicted on the official mission patches made for the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). Just as NASA creates specially designed patches for each mission into space, NRO follows that tradition for its spy satellite launches. But while NASA patches tend to feature space ships and American flags, NRO prefers wizards, Vikings, teddy bears and the all-seeing eye. With these outlandish designs, a civilian would be justified in wondering if NRO is trolling.

Unfortunately, given the agency's extreme secrecy, it’s impossible to answer that question for sure. But based on information that has been leaked about some of the patches, it seems there may be a method to the artistic madness.

Forged in Secret

Understanding the patches requires a trip back to the 1960s and the early days of the human space program, explains Robert Pearlman, a space historian and the founder of collectSPACE. At the time, NASA allowed its astronauts to name their spacecraft. John Glenn chose Friendship 7, for example, for the Mercury space capsule he piloted when he became the first US astronaut to orbit Earth. Gordon Cooper went with Faith 7 for his spacecraft during the final mission of the Mercury program.

When it came time to launch the Gemini program, however, NASA decided to take away the naming privilege. The astronauts, understandably, were disappointed. So Gemini pilot Cooper asked NASA if they’d be willing to compromise and—in the tradition of military squadrons—allow the crew to design a patch instead. NASA agreed, and since then patches have become a staple for both crewed and robotic NASA flights.

NRO arrived on the space launch scene around the same time that NASA’s first patches were being designed. In 1960, former president Dwight D. Eisenhower established the agency as a central authority for organizing the nation’s reconnaissance operations, and oversight of reconnaissance imaging satellites—spy satellites, in popular parlance—was a big part of that mission. Right from the start, NRO operations were all very cloak-and-dagger. The public didn’t even learn about the agency’s existence until 1971, and its first reconnaissance satellite program, Corona, wasn’t declassified until 1995. “The reconnaissance satellites have been a factor of the space program since the very beginning,” Pearlman says. “But they are indeed classified, and their capabilities are classified.”

Today NRO launches about four to six satellites per year, including the NROL-35 mission, with the patch seen above, slated to fly this Thursday. The public still doesn't know exactly what each satellite is doing, but for a couple decades now the agency has advertised the date and time of its launches—probably because, as Pearlman points out, “it’s hard to hide a rocket.” In response, a subculture of fervent hobbyists has become committed to watching the skies at night, piecing together the satellites’ orbits. At some point, those hobbyists discovered that—just like NASA—NRO also issues mission patches. The agency didn’t seem to care if the patches were leaked, and eventually it even started publishing depictions of the patches along with launch announcements. Even so, for years knowledge of the patches largely remained confined to enthusiasts, especially in the days prior to widespread social media. 

Little is known about the patch for NROL-16, launched in April 2005. The pelican could refer to a location where those birds live, and the gorilla could be America asserting its dominance. National Reconnaissance Office
This patch for NROL-10, launched in December 2000, is a mystery. National Reconnaissance Office
Edward Snowden’s NSA leaks broke shortly after the release of the patch for NROL-39, leading many to speculate that the octopus represented the tentacles of the government reaching out to control the world. After using the Freedom of Information Act, however, a journalist found a more mundane explanation: the octopus represents a failed instrument (nicknamed an octopus) that the team had to contend with while preparing the satellite for its December 2013 launch. National Reconnaissance Office
The rocket on the patch for NROL-1 represents the Atlas rocket used in the August 2004 launch, and the geometric shape in the middle might represent the Pentagon or the Department of Defense. “I don’t know about the hearts,” Pearlman says. National Reconnaissance Office
The tiger is circling the globe, just like the satellite launched on NROL-9 in May 1999. Why a tiger—or the choice for a mission motto—nobody knows. National Reconnaissance Office
The bird on this patch for NROL-49 could be an eagle to represent the US, and the flames might stand for the fireball produced by the Delta IV Heavy rocket used for the January 2011 launch. The feathered form could also be a phoenix—there is speculation that this satellite took the place of another that was discontinued. The Latin motto reads: "Better the devil you know." National Reconnaissance Office
This is the NROL-11 patch design that amateur satellite trackers cracked in 2000. Its design inadvertently revealed the mission and location of its payload (see main text). National Reconnaissance Office
Some enthusiasts muse that the five beams shooting out of the winged warrior's hand represent five pre-existing satellites in the Quasar communications system, since a Quasar satellite was the presumed payload of NROL-33 in May. The two wolves facing west and one facing east could indicate three new positions in this system. Finally, the setting sun may symbolize that this will be the final Quasar launch. National Reconnaissance Office
The presumed payload for NROL-38, launched in June 2012, is a type of satellite that functions with two others, creating a constellation. If that is true, the three-headed dragons might represent that satellite trio, and the positions of their heads around the Earth could hint at their real-world locations. National Reconnaissance Office
The launch number for NROL-66, which lifted off in February 2011, inspired the Route 66 reference. Some speculated that the bull is a reference to the devil, because of 66’s affinity with 666. The red bull could also be a nod to the type of rocket used for the launch, called a Minotaur. NROL-66 was not actually a spy satellite mission, but a classified device launched to demonstrate new technology. National Reconnaissance Office

Public Debut

The patches’ relative obscurity changed in 2000, with the launch of a payload known as NROL-11. The mission patch depicted what appeared to be owl eyes peering down at the Earth, where four arrow-shaped vectors, two per orbit, made their way across Africa. Three of the vectors were white, and one was dark. Based solely on studying the design, civilian satellite watcher Ted Molczan hypothesized that the patch showed a failed satellite (the dark vector), and that the newly launched satellite would take its place.

Sure enough, after the launch a new satellite appeared just where Molczan predicted. Pearlman, who reported on the story at the time, says that NRO at first told him “no comment” when he contacted them. About 30 minutes later they called him back and asked him not to publish the story. Pearlman told them no dice, and in the end, the NRO spokesman told him that the patches were just morale-builders for those who work on the launches.

Whether NRO admits it, though, it seemed that NROL-11’s patch had inadvertently revealed classified details about its payload’s whereabouts, and when the story broke, the patches suddenly appeared on the public’s radar. Although the patches were under more scrutiny than ever before, the agency didn’t flinch. Rather than classify them or discontinue the tradition, NRO ramped up its game. Subsequent designs became even more ridiculous, featuring patriotic gorillas or 16th-century ships, for example. The public ate it up. Some—like the 2013 mission heralded by a giant Earth-eating octopus—sparked their own media frenzies, and rip-offs of the most popular designs popped up for sale online. NRO’s new motto seems to be “better to have a more outlandish design than show actual details about the flight,” Pearlman says.

As for their motivations, Pearlman doesn’t think they’re in it just for the lolz. “No, I don’t think they’re playing us,” he says. “If anything, it’s an internal gag. Like, how far can you take it without being reprimanded? Or maybe the patches represent jokes that cropped up in the processing of the satellites, which we’ll never know unless they’re declassified—and maybe not even then.”

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