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NC Company's Space Shuttle Connection Ends


NASA Shuttle Mission patches made by A-B Emblem over the years. When space shuttle Atlantis touched down Thursday in Florida, it marked the official end of NASA's shuttle program. It's also the end of an era for a Western North Carolina company that's been sending its products into space for more than four decades. In a windowless steel warehouse about five miles north of Asheville, about a half-dozen seamstresses sit at heavy-duty sewing machines. They're adding backing and finishing the edges for all sorts of embroidered patches. Among them are grey-green RANGER and MOUNTAIN insignia for the sleeves of army uniforms. But a black diamond shaped patch, with bright gold, blue, and red accents stands out. It's the official mission patch for STS-135, the last space shuttle flight. And the astronauts who've just returned from space have patches just like it sewn onto their flight suits. So those who work at A-B Emblem feel a real connection to NASA. "A part of us has gone into space," says Kati Phelps. "Things that we have touched and felt and cut out and worked on. For over thirty years, Phelps has been the company's liaison to the space program. A-B Emblems has had the exclusive contract to produce all of the patches---or embroidered emblems, as they call them---for every NASA mission since 1970. That goes all the way back to Apollo 12. Each mission's commander has had the privilege of designing the official mission emblem. Phelps has worked closely with them to make sure their designs will translate properly into embroidery. "Embroidery is not printing and sometimes the things that you want to happen may not be feasible in embroidery without some specific tweaks," says Phelps. It often takes several tries to get it right. Astronauts have very precise standards for their designs, and many details have special meaning, so everything down to the number of stars has to be just right. Because some of the astronauts are also pilots, they sometimes fly themselves to Western North Carolina to meet with Phelps. "I have sat down to dinner with them and found myself talking with them about old cars and the fact that they can - unlike us - they can put their pants on two legs at a time," recalls Phelps. "They've talked about their sleeping habits, and they're all just generally really great guys." She won't give the names of astronauts she's met, but she smiles proudly as she points to a framed montage of John Glenn's mission patches. The mat in that frame was inscribed to her by Glenn in 1998. The company's work with NASA won't end here. A-B Emblem will continue to produce all of the NASA mission patches. Phelps says demand for some of them has been so high that they have made more than 200,000 for certain missions. They will also be producing new patches for each expedition to the International Space Station. But, as it is with so many people connected to the space program, knowing this is the final shuttle mission is bittersweet. "Well it's a sad thing to me and I'm sure to everyone else," says Phelps. "It has been so much a part of our lives here."