Merit Badge History: In 1965, NASA astronauts helped launch Space Exploration into orbit

On June 3, 1965, NASA Astronaut (and former Scout) Ed White made history by completing the first American spacewalk. Tucked into a pocket of his spacesuit was the Space Exploration merit badge. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

All new merit badges get introduced. Only one has gotten launched.

On June 3, 1965, two astronauts (both former Scouts) rocketed into space aboard NASA’s Gemini 4. They carried with them an extra special payload: a small round emblem representing the Space Exploration merit badge, which was then the BSA’s newest merit badge.

When astronaut Ed White took his walk into space — the first ever spacewalk by an American — that small circle of embroidered threads and khaki cloth was tucked into the pocket of his spacesuit.

“I think that Scouting teaches us to be independent, to rely on ourselves and to solve our problems in the best way as they come up,” White later told Scouting magazine. “The things they are learning will equip them to be good citizens, and that is really the big value in Scouting.”

The Space Exploration merit badge debuted during the height of the space race. In the 1960s, young people around the world were transfixed by the steady stream of out-of-this-world “firsts” achieved by American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts.

The badge was developed in close cooperation with NASA, demonstrating how top experts “in science, industry, education and government are helping develop requirements for modern merit badges,” Scouting magazine wrote in its March 1966 issue. That trend continues today.

The launch of the Space Exploration merit badge could not have come at a better time. Just four years after its release came the biggest milestone in the space race: Eagle Scout Neil Armstrong’s 1969 walk on the moon.

At 56 years old, the merit badge remains popular among Scouts. With commercial space travel, return visits to the moon and manned trips to Mars on the horizon, the badge remains relevant, too.

Gemini 4 astronauts Ed White (left) and Jim McDivitt. White, who was a Second Class Scout, died in the Apollo 1 fire on Jan 27, 1967. McDivitt, who was a Tenderfoot Scout, led the Apollo 9 mission in March 1969. (Photo courtesy of NASA)

Honorary 50-Milers

The 50-Miler Award honors any youth or adult member who completes a trek of at least 50 miles by boat, by canoe, on foot, by horse or by bicycle.

Notably missing from that list of transportation options: a two-stage liquid-fuel rocket like the one used to carry former Scouts White and James A. McDivitt into orbit.

But just this once, the Boy Scouts of America made an exception. After White and McDivitt safely returned to Earth, the BSA presented the Gemini 4 astronauts with an honorary 50-Miler Award.

In exchange, Robert R. Gilruth, director of NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center (later renamed the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center), presented the BSA with the actual merit badge that had flown in space.

The Space Exploration merit badge carried aboard Gemini 4 is now displayed at the National Scouting Museum. (Image courtesy of David Werhane, museum director)

It belongs in a museum

So where’s the badge now? That important piece of NASA, American and BSA history is currently displayed at the National Scouting Museum at Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico.

The badge is part of an entire exhibit devoted to the strong ties between NASA and Scouting. About two-thirds of all astronauts — and 11 of the 12 men who walked on the moon — were Scouts.

The exhibit also includes photographs, mission patches, the spacesuit gloves that belonged to Eagle Scout James A. Lovell Jr. and an American flag taken to the surface of the moon by Eagle Scout Charles M. Duke Jr.

See more in the museum’s virtual tour.

The space exhibit at the National Scouting Museum. (Image courtesy of David Werhane, museum director)

A patrol meeting in space

In December 1965, NASA astronauts pulled off the world’s first rendezvous in space.

The crews aboard Gemini 6 and Gemini 7 met in space at an altitude of 160 miles. At one point during the encounter, the two capsules were a mere 1 foot apart.

While these Gemini missions made front-page news for scoring another point in the space race, they made headlines in the BSA for a different reason: All astronauts involved were Scouts.

In Gemini 6, Walter M. Schirra Jr. was a First Class Scout, and Thomas P. Stafford was a Star Scout. Gemini 7 contained Eagle Scout James A. Lovell and Tenderfoot Scout Frank Borman.

This quartet of former Scouts inspired Scouting magazine to dub this rendezvous “the first patrol meeting in space.”

Making headlines

Even before the cloth version of the Space Exploration merit badge made its way to orbit, news of the badge made its way to The New York Times.

In a front-page story from March 6, 1965, the above-the-fold headline declared that “Scouts Keep Pace With Atomic Age.”

“Scout merit badges used to be awarded for such homely skills as Blacksmithing, Pathfinding and Stalking (to take three, now obsolete, from the 1919 Scout Handbook),” the article says. “Today the badge program is setting youths toward new horizons. … And the old Pathfinding badge may soon have its modern equivalent in one awarded for Space Exploration.”

Merit badge requirements, then and now

Then: These were the requirements for the Space Exploration merit badge when it launched in 1965.

  1. Present a report in at least 500 words, describing the history and development of space exploration.
  2. Identify, from illustrations or models, 10 United States spacecraft and five United States launching devices.
  3. Describe the purpose of two United States space probes and two satellites, giving the main types of instruments involved.
  4. Assume you are an astronaut in a spacecraft. Explain briefly in writing, problems and how they may be solved, related to five of the following: radiation, meteorites, weightlessness, diet, sanitation, clothing, acceleration, deceleration, re-entry, breathing and communication.
  5. Design and construct a nonfiring model of a launching device. Using this model, describe how it operates to place a spacecraft in orbit, and how a space probe might be launched from such spacecraft. Explain how a satellite remains in orbit.
  6. Do one:
    (a) Demonstrate a series of six condition exercises used by astronauts, explaining their purpose.
    (b) Visit a space research laboratory or space rocket launch facility and present a report on your visit.
    (c) Write and deliver at a meeting of your troop or post a five-minute talk on the values of space exploration.

Now: Here are the current* requirement for the Space Exploration merit badge.

  1. Tell the purpose of space exploration and include the following:
    (a) Historical reasons
    (b) Immediate goals in terms of specific knowledge
    (c) Benefits related to Earth resources, technology, and new products
    (d) International relations and cooperation
  2. Design a collector’s card, with a picture on the front and information on the back, about your favorite space pioneer. Share your card and discuss four other space pioneers with your counselor.
  3. Build, launch, and recover a model rocket. Make a second launch to accomplish a specific objective. Identify and explain the following rocket parts.
    (a) Body tube
    (b) Engine mount
    (c) Fins
    (d) Igniter
    (e) Launch lug
    (f) Nosecone
    (g) Payload
    (h) Recovery system
    (i) Rocket engine
  4. Discuss and demonstrate each of the following:
    (a) The law of action-reaction
    (b) How rocket engines work
    (c) How satellites stay in orbit
    (d) How satellite pictures of Earth and pictures of other planets are made and transmitted
  5. Do TWO of the following:
    (a) Discuss with your counselor a robotic space exploration mission and a historic crewed mission. Tell about each mission’s major discoveries, its importance, and what was learned from it about the planets, moons, or regions of space explored.
    (b) Using magazine photographs, news clippings, and electronic articles (such as from the internet), make a scrapbook about a current planetary mission.
    (c) Design a robotic mission to another planet, moon, comet, or asteroid that will return samples of its surface to Earth. Name the planet, moon, comet, or asteroid your spacecraft will visit. Show how your design will cope with the conditions of the environments of the planet, moon, comet, or asteroid.
  6. Describe the purpose, operation, and components of ONE of the following:
    (a) Space shuttle or any other crewed orbital vehicle, whether government- owned (U.S. or foreign) or commercial
    (b) International Space Station
  7. Design an inhabited base located within our solar system, such as Titan, asteroids, or other locations that humans might want to explore in person. Make drawings or a model of your base. In your design, consider and plan for the following:
    (a) Source of energy
    (b) How it will be constructed
    (c) Life-support system
    (d) Purpose and function
  8. Discuss with your counselor two possible careers in space exploration that interest you. Find out the qualifications, education, and preparation required and discuss the major responsibilities of those positions

*Requirements current as of the post date for this story. For the latest merit badge requirements, go here.

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About Bryan Wendell 3181 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is the founder of Bryan on Scouting and a contributing writer.