The worm is back. NASA’s sleek and wavy logo from the 1970s is set to make its return on a SpaceX Falcon 9 scheduled to launch in May — the first to carry astronauts to the International Space Station from American soil since 2011.
While NASA says there’s “a good chance” the worm logo will pop up again in the future, the organization’s official logo remains the “meatball” design introduced a year after the agency was established, in 1959, and replaced by the worm from 1975 until 1992.
NASA’s official logo “the meatball” was first introduced in 1959 Credit: Ethan Miller/Getty Images
The two logos couldn’t be more different. The meatball has a round shape (hence the nickname) and is filled with references to space and flight, such as a planet, stars and an orbital path — a far more literal interpretation of their activities than the minimalistic worm, introduced in 1975 as part of a wider overhaul of federal agency graphics instigated by Richard Nixon’s administration. Though it’s popular in the branding and design industries, as well as with Gen Xers who grew up with it, the logotype was met internally with skepticism and quickly slapped with its derogatory nickname.
“I think the big problem was how it was announced,” said Bill Barry, NASA’s chief historian, over the phone. “It was developed by a very small team and only a few people at NASA knew anything about it. Many found out the old logo was being obliterated when new letterhead paper was shipped to them from headquarters, with no further explanations. People were just incensed.”
The logo was the work of two young designers, Bruce Blackburn and Richard Danne, who had recently opened a firm in New York. In a 2015 interview, Blackburn said they set out to create something “very simple, very direct; otherworldly, unexpected, something that you would remember, for sure.”
That simplicity was at odds with the explicit symbolism of the meatball, with its blue planet and stars. It also suggested, perhaps unwittingly, a political agenda.
NASA technicians prepare to attach part of a lifting sling to the right rear of the Space Shuttle Discovery Credit: Bruce Weaver/AFP/Getty Images
NASA’s “worm” logo Credit: NASA
“One of the reasons why the Nixon administration wanted to change NASA’s logo was that they wanted to change NASA’s mission itself, to make it a generalized problem solving agency and contribute more to the economy — which would mean less space exploration,” Barry said. “The worm was intentionally designed without any stars or any aircraft in it, but just letters, because NASA could then be anything you wanted it to be, including not a space agency.”
The worm stuck around for 17 years, but it wasn’t popular internally. NASA’s own history book on its logos, “Emblems of Exploration: Logos of the NACA and NASA,” describes its acceptance within the agency as “far from universal,” and notes that many longtime NASA employees were dismayed by the replacement of their beloved meatball, leading to a “raging controversy.”
Eventually, the worm was retired almost overnight in 1992 by a newly appointed NASA administrator, Daniel Goldin, who thought the resurrection of the old logo from the moon landings would help boost morale.
Closeups of Gemini 8 Command Pilot Neil A. Armstrong Credit: Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
“Remember, this is just a few years after the Challenger accident and the failed launch of the Hubble Space Telescope. Goldin was brought in to fix problems, especially the morale of the workforce, which was in the pits,” said Barry.
At the time, Goldin said it was the men and women of NASA who ordered the return of the old insignia. But there was also the fact that he hated the worm logo. According to Barry, his disdain was so notorious that staff at NASA centers would go on “worm purges” in preparation of his visits.
“The administrator simply did not want to see it, period,” said Ted Huetter, a space historian who worked at NASA during the Goldin era. “That seemed reasonable at first, but then it just got a little weirder, to the point that there would be a scramble to make sure that his path was not going to intersect any worm.”
Thankfully for design buffs, NASA’s current administrator, Jim Bridenstine, who announced the return of the worm on Twitter in early April, views the logo differently, having grown up “inspired by NASA missions during the era of the NASA worm.”
Group portrait of Apollo 11 lunar landing mission astronauts (left to right) Neil Armstrong, Michael Collins and Edwin Aldrin Jr. in spacesuits Credit: NASA/The LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images
While the SpaceX Falcon 9 launch will mark the logo’s return to public prominence, the worm never truly went away. Even after adopting the meatball as its official symbol, NASA has continued to use it on clothing and souvenir items, and in one prominent location Goldin wasn’t able to purge.
“Ironically enough, one of the places where the worm remained and still is today is right in the NASA headquarters building, nine floors below Goldin’s office,” said Barry.
“And it’s still there, because it’s carved into granite.”