Vintage NASA mission patches: LIFE photo gallery

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Space shuttle ‘Endeavour’ is scheduled to make its final flight on April 29; with this end of an era in mind, LIFE.com has published an image gallery that looks back at a “small but central element shared for decades by NASA missions: the patches worn on astronauts’ flight suits.”

Often designed by crew members themselves; ranging from sleek and futuristic to florid, whimsical, beautiful, and downright homey; occasionally quite moving, the patches serve as emblems of each unique NASA adventure — personalized tokens of the human drive to confront and understand the unknown.

View the full gallery here. LIFE.com Deputy Editor Ben Cosgrove says, “I admit, the little apple beside teacher Christa McAuliffe’s name on the ‘Challenger’ patch kind of got to me.