How This NASA Logo Ended Up Everywhere – The Post


For several years now, it has become increasingly common to see t-shirts, hoodies and accessories such as backpacks and hats with the simple inscription: NASA. Many believe that the four squiggly stylized letters are the official logo of the US space agency, when in fact the main symbol of NASA is different, more elaborate and, according to some, a little confusing. Paradoxically, the most successful logo of the world’s largest space agency is the secondary one, adopted in the mid-1970s and abandoned in the early 1990s, only to be rediscovered and re-evaluated in the latter period. There’s something about the 80s and 90s revival, the taste for big, flamboyant lettering on some clothing and how some logos look better than others on the rockets we send into space.

NASA’s main logo is affectionately called the “meatball” by agency employees and enthusiasts, both for its shape and the agency’s historical connection to aviation (OLS in aviation is an optical landing system with colored balls and is often called a “meatball”). At first glance, the logo looks like a not-so-continuous set of lines intersecting the NASA inscription with a blue disk in the background. The red lines extend beyond the very edges of the disk and give a sense of movement, but overall make the shape of the symbol a bit messy. For a long time, the NASA logo actually polarized between those who loved it and those who hated it, and who much preferred the alternative logo, the one more easily found on T-shirts today.

The blue disc is actually a schematic version of a sphere representing a planet (so not necessarily Earth), while the white dots are stars referring to space. The two red lines that extend beyond the edges of the disc represent the wing of an aircraft, reminiscent of aeronautics, and in particular, they are wings for supersonic flight. The white ellipse instead serves to indicate the spacecraft orbiting the red wing and the NASA lettering.


The logo was adopted in the late 1950s and then saw some updates over time, until the early 1970s when the space agency felt it was time to rethink its look. The project was part of a larger initiative to make the graphics of various US federal agencies more consistent.

Design agency Danne & Blackburn, relatively small but known in the industry for their futuristic-looking designs, was tasked with the task as far as NASA was concerned. Bruce N. Blackburn, one of the founders of the agency, had previously worked on the development of the logo for the bicentennial of the American Revolution. Using the colors of the American flag, he created a star made up of rounded lines, not too dissimilar to those that would make up the new NASA logo.

(Bruce N. Blackburn – United States Government)

After evaluating various variations and alternatives, Danne & Blackburn finally designed the logo that we see today on many pieces of clothing and other accessories. The agency opted for a futuristic design with four letters, each consisting of a single line, thick and zigzag, colored red-orange. The two A’s in the logo were barely outlined and had no centerline to resemble the tip (part of the nose cone) of space rockets or the exhaust nozzle of engines used in the aerospace industry.


If the previous logo was the “meatball”, the new one became known as the “worm” because of the way it was designed with simple lines. The new logo was much less cumbersome than the previous one and, above all, it was easily recognizable even from a distance: it was more legible than the blue disc, without the complications that interfered with the reading of the NASA inscriptions. The “Worm” could be more easily inserted into the sides of space vehicles and, above all, vertically onto rockets, given that it had a horizontal development that was less prone to deformation if applied to a large cylindrical shape.


The new logo was officially adopted by NASA in 1975, when Danne and Blackburn worked on the entire corporate identity project for the space agency to ensure that NASA had its own consistent graphic identity that was reflected in everything it did: from space vehicles after their own. documentation, transmission of communication materials. It was made on Graphics Standards Manuala sixty-page manual that included very detailed instructions on the use of logos and fonts selected for NASA.

According to Danne, the introduction of the corporate image not only made NASA’s graphics more coherent, but also simplified many of the agency’s internal communications activities. Higher standards were introduced, such as predefined document layouts, which accelerated the preparation of publications at a time when many editing activities were still performed analogically.

(Graphics Standards Manual – NASA)

However, the performance of the “worm” did not please everyone both inside and outside of NASA. The most critical believed it to be cold and uncommunicative, a far cry from the previous logo, which instead conveyed a more complex message and, above all, was associated with one of the greatest advances made by the US space agency. When Neil Armstrong took the famous first step on the moon in 1969, his suit had a blue disc NASA insignia. For some, the transition to the new logo meant abandoning the glory and achievements of the Apollo space program and its astronauts’ moon landings.

(Graphics Standards Manual – NASA)

Between the late 1980s and early 1990s, NASA went through one of its most difficult periods: it had to deal with the aftermath of the space shuttle Challenger disaster and serious problems arose for the Hubble Space Telescope. In this context, in 1992, then NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin decided to abandon the “worm” and return to the historical previous logo. He chose to announce it categorically to the surprise of many staff, referring to the Danne logo and Blackburn saying: “He’s going to die soon and we’ll never see him again.”

After about 17 years of use, the logo ended up with just the word NASA everywhere: on documents, on plaques outside offices, on astronaut suits, on some space vehicles, on the sides of rockets and launch pads, on materials. used in laboratories and agency merchandising. Disappearing in the short term that Goldin hoped would be impossible, and in fact the logo continued to exist, albeit maintaining an almost secret existence in the background. There was no shortage of admirers of the graphics.

US President Ronald Reagan in front of the Enterprise space shuttle prototype at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center on July 4, 1982 (NASA)

In 2015, the two designers started an online fundraiser to fund a reprint Graphics Standards Manual which Danne and Blackburn worked on to make their work known, but also as a token of gratitude. The initiative attracted the interest of many enthusiasts and led to seven reprints with a total of over 35,000 copies sold worldwide. The new expansion of the manual brought new visibility to the logo and began to attract interest from some apparel and accessory manufacturers who were interested in using it on their products.

In 2017, fashion brand Coach asked NASA for permission to use the “worm” on jackets, bags and shoes, and the agency granted it, although the logo was retired. In fact, like much of the images and graphic products created by the United States government, emblems such as those of NASA are in the public domain and can be used without paying a license if they are rendered according to certain rules. . Except for artistic redesigns, NASA logos should be reproduced starting from the originals provided by the agency and maintaining the same color scheme, which includes the use of specific color codes.


Coach helped make the NASA logo fashionable again and inspired many other companies to start printing it on their products. Due to growing success and some personal affection, in 2020 space agency administrator Jim Bridenstine decided to re-adopt the “worm” as a secondary logo and have it placed on the Falcon 9 that brought the astronauts back into orbit. for the first time from American soil, following the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011. The logo has since returned, appearing on spacesuits and some vehicles, such as the Orion capsule that will one day carry astronauts to the moon as part of the Artemis space program .

Orion and the Moon in the distance (NASA)

The coexistence of two such different logos is not always easy to manage, and for the most orthodox, it conflicts with the harmonized image rules that the agency established in the seventies. In addition, NASA has 18 thousand employees and hundreds of offices and laboratories, not to mention the enormous by-products it generates in the aerospace industry: maintaining a unique visual identity is not easy, and the exception of the secondary logo was generally welcomed positively. Those who couldn’t stand the “worm” know that the main logo is still the “meatball” and those who prefer a more futuristic design take solace in the fact that the red and orange logo appears from time to time.

The logo created by Dann and Blackburn has had a large impact, as evidenced by its success in the apparel and accessories industries. It is also for this reason that NASA invited Dann to Washington, DC in November to pay tribute to the work done some fifty years ago, together with his colleague, who will die in 2021. Danne confirmed that even today he is not a big fan of the “meatball”, but added that he is happy that the two logos coexist peacefully: ¬ęThey are so different, but we found a way to make this thing work. Is this the best way? Probably not. But it’s close to being one. Above all, it satisfies everyone, so I can’t complain.’


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