It began with a meatball.
In the late 1950s, NASA employees were invited to submit logos for their newly formed government outpost. James Modarelli, chief of the Management Services Division and a graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art, gave it a go—and probably didn’t realize he was in fact branding the agency for the next seven (and counting) decades. His concept? As NASA recaps, “The design incorporates references to different aspects of the mission of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The round shape of the insignia represents a planet. The stars represent space. The red v-shaped wing represents aeronautics. The circular orbit around the agency’s name represents space travel.”
Problem was, given its complexity, it proved tricky to reproduce in a variety of applications. So the agency decided to modernize. As a result of the 1972 launch of the National Endowment for the Arts’ Federal Graphics Improvement Program, which aimed to improve visual standards across government agencies, Richard Danne and Bruce Blackburn of the New York design firm Danne & Blackburn were commissioned to create a new logo in 1974. Colloquially dubbed “the worm,” it first appeared on internal documentation, followed by the release of the NASA Graphics Standards Manual as an 8.5 x 11″ ring binder. It existed side-by-side with the meatball … until the worm was retired in 1992, reserved for souvenir items only, thus breaking the heart of many the space-minded design aficionado.
Perhaps NASA could tell we needed a ray of sunshine in these pandemic times, because they have now announced that the worm is officially back—“just in time to mark the return of human spaceflight on American rockets from American soil.” The logo looks perfect painted on the side of the Falcon 9 launch vehicle that will be shepherding astronauts to the International Space Station this May.
And it seems this isn’t a limited engagement: “There’s a good chance you’ll see the logo featured in other official ways on this mission and in the future,” NASA writes.
The future is bright, indeed.
Standards Manual kickstarted a reissue of the NASA standards in 2017. If you don’t have a copy handy but still want to give it a browse, NASA maintains a PDF on its website, which appears below.