NASA logo evolution: meatball vs worm

NASA signage

NASA’s original logo dates back to 1959 when the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) changed into an agency that would advance both space and aeronautics: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

NASA logos
NASA/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

After a NASA Lewis Research Center illustrator’s design was chosen for the new agency’s official seal, the head of Lewis’ Research Reports Division, James Modarelli, was asked by the executive secretary of NACA to design a logo that could be used for less formal purposes.

NASA logos
The illustrator’s design before simplification

Mr Modarelli simplified the seal, leaving only the white stars and orbital path on a round field of blue with a red airfoil. Then he added white N-A-S-A lettering.

NASA's meatball logo
NASA’s meatball

In the “meatball” design, the sphere represents a planet, the stars represent space, the red chevron is a wing representing aeronautics (the latest design in hypersonic wings at the time the logo was developed), and then there is an orbiting spacecraft going around the wing.

Known officially as the insignia, NASA’s round logo was not called the “meatball” until 1975. That’s when NASA decided a more modern logo was in order.

Richard Danne and Bruce Blackburn were hired to replace the complex meatball with a stripped-down, modernist interpretation where even the cross stroke of the A’s were removed. During the first design presentation, the proposed system was met with some resistance.

NASA worm logotype

Danne remembers NASA’s administrator, Dr James Fletcher, and deputy administrator, Dr George Low, having the following exchange:

Fletcher: “I’m simply not comfortable with those letters, something is missing.”
Low: “Well, yes, the cross stroke is gone from the letter A.”
Fletcher: “Yes, and that bothers me.”
Low: “Why?”
Fletcher: (long pause) “I just don’t feel we are getting our money’s worth!”

Still, the new program was approved and implemented.

NASA worm logo
The “worm” — image via Galaxy Wire

17 years later, despite its winning the prestigious “Award of Design Excellence” by The Presidential Design Awards, NASA scrapped the Danne and Blackburn design and re-instated the “meatball.”

NASA worm logo
The “worm” on Star Trek — image via Ex Astris Scientia

Danne thinks this was at least partly due to how NASA chose to introduce the new logo to its various internal agencies in the first place. He says the redesign was kept secret until letters were sent to every center director… on their new stationary. Those loyal to the old design were offended, and a rivalry between the “meatball” and the “worm” began.

NASA meatball logo
“Meatball” image via NASA

Info excerpted from:
NASA “Meatball” Logo
Who Made Those NASA Logos? (via Chris Backert)
NASA insignia, on Wikipedia

For some truly space-age web design, read the NASA Graphic Standards. And some of you will remember the NASA logo redesign post from last year.

Update: 08 August 2011
NASA brand guidelines on Flickr.

Header photo via the greener bench.

24 responses

  1. I think both logos are definitely products of their time.

    I’m not sure it made sense to go back to the 50’s design in the 90’s without some tweaking or modernizing, or maybe a complete re-design would have been good. Why go back in time unless you’re trying to evoke nostalgia? I would hope with aeronautics and space we move forward not back.

  2. I was raised on the “worm” logo that appeared on one of my first Matchbox sets, a flatbed trailer truck carrying a NASA rocket, accompanied by a radar van. It was iconic. The “meatball” feels old, not worthy of space explores. “Worm” on the other hand looks like something from 2025. To conclude, NASA should come back to the “worm” and aim for the top again.

  3. and with space travel topics going on about the idea of traveling through wormholes, it’s more apropos to go forward with the worm logo than backwards… tho maybe that’s why they went kaput and NASA is no more

  4. Dropping the beautiful ‘worm’ logo was a ‘Giant Step Backward’ for mankind.
    Guess they are use to having meatball & spaghetti on their clothes.

  5. I love how their graphic standards web page recommends using Netscape Navigator version 4.0 or above and set to 800×600.
    I guess I’ve never been a fan of the meatball version, so it is unfortunate that they did go back to that.

  6. There is something simply more powerful and iconic about the worm logo… it’s monumental and seems more appropriate for for space exploration.

  7. Great article, I can’t help but feel the the very first one (the illustrators version) has the most appeal for me. The missing cross bars in any logo always troubles me, I do believe in keeping things simple but there needs to be a rationale behind it, in this instance I just don’t understand it. I think once NASA starts considering MARS more seriously there should be a totally new idea, something way more inspiring.

    Just on a slightly different note, the use of the classic American Airlines logo on the spaceships in the sci-fi movie ‘Silent Running’ look pretty nice.

  8. Huh.. That’s very interesting.

    Honestly, I dislike the Worm logo. I feel as they were trying to make it “spacy”, by making it simple and removing the cross in the A as if it was a fashion forward version. I associate strange, simplified fonts like that (especially in regards to space) with aliens. And although it’s about space, NASA is definitely not alien. It should be very human, very traditional (though timeless).

    It should say “This is who we are!”, not “Hello, Aliens, this is our interpretation of what we think you might write like”.

    I wouldn’t want their (or anyone’s) first impression of NASA to be “Conceptual Future Space Culture”. It should be what we are now, and what we’ll always be.

  9. As the Art Director for NASA Television I am often conflicted about my thoughts on the Meatball vs. the Worm.

    The Meatball is a classic branding icon that was there at NASA’s beginning and burned into the collective conscience through its use in the Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs; it is as recognizable to the world as the Coca-Cola logo.

    But… as a designer it is horrible to work with. It is very difficult to place into Opens, IDs, Promos, etc. It was damn near impossible to recreate in 3D… and always must be manually centered because the red vector is not even on each side.

    For me, the Worm just looks too simple and dated… even though it would be much easier to incorporate into designs and build in 3D. Even though I hate working with it… I have to vote for the Meatball… nothing says NASA better than that.

    Mark R. Hailey
    Art Director, NASA Television

  10. To be honest I’m hard pressed to decide which I like best. The circle device with lots of stuff going on in it actually feels very modern to me (possibly due to current trends) I really like it a lot. The typface is dated but I like the way its sparkling serifs remand me of the intro to Bewitched (the American 60s sitcom, probably not the feel NASA actually wanted).

    The worm is like every font I ever tried to draw in the back of my school book and on my pencil tin. But it nostalgia aside, it does feel like it needs a sleep.

  11. An alien could read the “worm” logo as “VSVN”, so you run the risk of something getting lost in translation. Maybe “VSVN” is offensive in the alien dialect and we could be bombed to hell. Just a thought.

  12. tbh i think both are slightly dated they need a more current typeface the worm reminds me of an 80s vision of what the future must be like and the meatball looks like a police badge but i do agree it works well on uniforms just looks more “government official” at the end of the day their logo will have to move with the times because of the nature of their business but then again they dont need to appeal to the general public (its nasa your either into it or your not)

  13. I prefer the “meatball” because it better depicts the idea of NASA involving space travel. The “worm” represents nothing to someone who does not know what the letters stand for, but I suppose that is typical for many logos.

    My main reason for posting is to share an idea about the chevron. I bought a “I Need My Space” hat at the Kennedy Space Center, and the stitching of the “meatball” logo gave the chevron three dimensions. This image brought to mind a dowsing or divining rod used to search for water. The chevron seems to be a forked stick pointing to the heavens. After all, isn’t water, or signs of it, one of the first things we look for in space exploration? I convinced myself that this was the intention of the designer, which led me to the search for it’s design story, and then to this site to put forth my observation.

    Thank you!

  14. I must say, I like them both. I missed the “Meatball” when it was replaced by the “Worm” but there was something so neat and clean and fresh about the “Worm” that I liked. Going back to the “Meatball” is fine with me too and, in fact, I think I like the ‘retro’ feel it evokes in me. I guess I can treat them pretty equally and enjoy anything they come up with next as long as it says “NASA”.

    These are pretty easy adjustments folks; just sit back, chill out and enjoy the ride…

  15. Why not just change the name of the space agency to Apple or Pepsi?


    Logo problem solved!

  16. I always assumed NASA used an official “insignia” for official items and a stylized symbol for public multimedia, much as the air force does.

    While maintaining currency is a must as with all graphic identities, the graphic identity of a government agency must also function as representative of the larger government, its stability, and continuance. This creates obvious contradictions as to what such graphic identity should look like and makes it unnecessarily difficult to accomplish with the assumption there could only be one brand or symbol. For instance it would send all the wrong messages to redesign the presidential seal just because it prints and displays poorly (which it does).

    The insigne is not just a brand identity for the sake of public recognition, it is the graphical analogue of the agency itself and must connote the same gravity and honor a signature or seal has, a function which insignia have traditionally served. If it’s a multi-billion dollar spacecraft, it has to be the insignia because those things are NASA incarnate. If we’re talking about websites and laser printers and staying hip, then make a separate brand. That’s what the worm logo is for.

  17. The challenge for the NASA worm logo was always an uphill battle. Designers are used to the kind of idiotic conversations quoted in the initial presentation by Dr. Fletcher. Minimalism is a tough sell when the audience thinks of a logo as a military patch. The challenge for the NASA brand, was to continually be viable in the public eye to harness a continued curiosity and public interest, and therefore public support. In other words: a healthy budget.

    In that regard, the worm was dead solid perfect. Suggesting a break away from its old-school fly boy roots, it pointed towards a greater scientific path to the future. Having said that, it’s easy to see why it met internal resistance. It was perfect for its time, and should have had a healthy future for decades to come.

    Sadly, it serves as a textbook lesson in how important internal ‘buy-in’ and adaptation is to the greater success of any identity program.

    This alone wasn’t cause for its demise. After the Columbia disaster, and the massive shake-up that followed, an attempt to ‘look back to the future’ mentality took hold, and the worm was scapegoated with representing a temporary failure to maintain quality.

    If only it was that easy.

    Brands and institutions change logos for all kinds of reasons, but IMHO the killing of the worm was one of the worse-reasoned decisions in history.

  18. Here on earth – the meatball.

    Splashed onto the hull of a spacecraft – the worm, unmistakable.

  19. I realize I’m a little late to the party here, but I think the attraction for the meatball folks is probably more emotional; it’s what they remember seeing on the space suits when they watched it on tv. So, the meatball: Yeah, it’s got a planet and stars and a spacecraft in orbit and a wing and the letters N A S A. It’s crap. The only thing missing is a smiling Sun. It’s what a first grader would create if asked.

    For those who espouse the meatball as representing the spirit of NASA, I submit that the worm was never given the same opportunity. Dan Golding eradicated it as if it never existed, viewing it as the vestige of an organization mired in complacency. This was just plain dumb. And what logo was on the Shuttle Columbia when it broke up on reentry because controllers on the ground casually disregarded the damaged ceramic tiles on the spacecraft? That would be the meatball. The worm logo is not dated, it is timeless. I challenge anyone suggesting NASA needs a third logo, to take a shot at it and post it for all to judge. Nothing will come close to the worm logo. It’s sleek, smart and says technology.

    I think it’s fair to say that the meatball represents the spirit of the early pilots of NASA. It represented the “right stuff,” whereas the worm represents scientific discovery–not a bad image for an organization whose scientists represent our best hope for saving this planet.

    Jim Sonnenberg

  20. Just a clarification: It was after the Challenger explosion and the O-rings and all that nonsense that Dan Golding went on his Teddy Roosevelt-style worm logo hunting expedition. The idea was to expunge the worm and the malaise that went with it. The Columbia breakup illustrated the folly of that thinking, and ironically exposed Golding’s fix as perhaps more superficial than substantive. Then again, the Space Shuttle was not much more than a school bus sitting belly-side atop a giant roman candle. Every astronaut understood the dangers. Frankly it’s amazing there weren’t more disasters. Perhaps this more than anything is a testament to the skill and dedication of every employee at NASA, logo notwithstanding.

    Jim Sonnenberg

  21. Let Pentagram redesign it. NASA has a huge need for quality designers and a firm brand stance with consistency. Their social marketing has shown through in the past couple of years, but as a whole, it is disconnected and lacking inspiration. NASA is doing some of the coolest stuff imaginable, and they are having trouble selling that… there is a serious need to right that ship.

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