NASA/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images
NASA’s original logo dates back to 1959 when the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) metamorphosed into an agency that would advance both space and aeronautics: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). 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.
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.
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.
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.”
Fletcher: (long pause) “I just don’t feel we are getting our money’s worth!”
Still, the new program was approved and implemented.
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.”
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.
“Meatball” image via NASA
Update: 08 August 2011
NASA brand guidelines on Flickr.