Are you Team Meatball,
or Team Worm?
by
Christopher Bonanos

There's an episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation titled “The Royale”, first aired in 1989, in which the U.S.S. Enterprise encounters a mysterious field of wreckage orbiting a distant planet. The starship's crew beams a chunk of the debris aboard, and determines that it's a fragment of the Charybdis, a vessel launched from Earth in 2037 and lost thereafter. it's easy enough to identify, because the fragment they take aboard displays two visible symbols: An American flag bearing 52 stars (putting it, they say, in the mid-21st century) and a logotype of four curvy letters reading N-A-S-A.

“The Royale” has been looping around the planet in reruns since it premiered. Richard D. James, the show's production designer, surely never imagined that his team was inadvertently setting up a big fat continuity error. But in 1992, just three years after the episode aired, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration dumped that sinuous logo and systematically began to strip it from buildings, documents, uniforms, and spacecraft, replacing it with an older insignia — nicknamed the Meatball — that the agency had retired nearly two decades before. It was a quixotically vigorous effort for something so symbolic, and the strange path that led there encounters the existential question graphic designers face: How important is what we do? And another question: How did the Meatball defeat the Worm?

FIRST STAGE: LAUNCH

The battle of the logos begins before NASA, or for that matter Star Trek, existed. In 1957, the United States was making plans for its first space flight. As part of a deliberately apolitical program called the International Geophysical Year, a satellite would circle the earth, gathering shareable scientific data during a stretch of peak solar activity. Rocketry, telemetry, and instrumentation had all advanced rapidly since the end of World War II, and it was perfectly reasonable to expect that research in the high atmosphere would move into orbit next. Project Vanguard had been announced and funded in 1955, and run by the U.S. Navy. The old National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, known as NACA and founded in 1915, had been working on missile technology as well. Its first launch, initially scheduled for September 1957, was delayed till spring.

On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union announced the launch of Sputnik, its own satellite. It was a polished sphere with four antennae trailing off it, and it functioned as a beacon but little more; its only signal was a steady beep. If you had a shortwave radio, you could hear it passing overhead. The Soviets were proud of their achievement, and although Nikita Khrushchev's government issued some propagandistic expressions of pride, they were not outlandish. This was a nice little scientific move, to be followed by bigger and better efforts, same as the American one. Sputnik beeped along for just 21 days, till its batteries died. Ten weeks after that, it burned to bits as it fell back into the atmosphere. The American intelligence agencies had known it was going to be launched, and no panic button had been pressed.

The rest of America, though, went bananas. The Communists! Those plodders who were okay at building tractors and tanks but nothing high-tech — they were conquering the skies, the moon, the heavens themselves. Everyone was talking in military terms, not scientific ones. (Tom Wolfe, in his definitive The Right Stuff, notes how many public figures used the phrase “capturing the high ground.”) RED BABY MOON, read a giant headline in the New York Daily News. The usually more demure Herald Tribune, across all eight columns of its front page, went with a banner reading U.S. VIEWS SATELLITE AS RUSSIAN VICTORY. Slightly cooler heads saw the point of that launch vehicle: The Soviet rocket that put a satellite 130 miles into space had been developed to take a hydrogen bomb across the Pacific. And, after all, researchers in the United States had been quietly thinking about how to build a spy satellite. Surely we weren't the only ones.

A month later, the Soviets outdid themselves, sending up Sputnik 2, a half-ton capsule containing a dog named Laika whose (final) life signs were monitored by telemetry. When the United States tried to launch its own Vanguard TV3 satellite a few weeks later, in December, the rocket blew up on the launch pad. The Americans were put in the unfamiliar position of looking hapless and inept.

Congress, antagonized and panicky, scrambled to offer money and support, and within just a few weeks passed the National Aeronautics and Space Act of 1958, forming a new civilian organization devoted to space flight. The new National Aeronautics and Space Agency incorporated NACA's operations, and finally got a satellite up the following May, a little thing called Explorer 1. The space race was on.

Few people in those early days of NASA were thinking about graphic design. The agency was run by a mix of military folks, flyboys and bureaucrats, and not a lot of them were concerned with the field that was more often called “commercial art.” But NASA did need something to put on its letterhead, and its administrator, T. Keith Glennan, asked a man named James Modarelli to work up both a formal seal (the kind that could be embossed or gold-stamped on a certificate) and an everyday insignia that could serve as a logo for the agency. NACA's old symbol, a shield with feather-edged wings, was ill-suited to represent space flight.

Modarelli, a technical illustrator at NACA, had risen to run the research-reports division at the agency's Lewis Flight Propulsion Laboratories, and now did the same at NASA. He was well-liked; to this day, he's fondly recalled by his old colleagues. He had thoughtful ideas about what might make a good logotype, including a curved model of a delta-shaped wing that he'd seen at a meeting a few months earlier. There were multiple such airfoils being tested in the labs, and an image of one of them made its way into a sketch Modarelli offered. A further call for for submissions from the rest of the agency brought in 350 sketches and designs. When judging time rolled around, Glennan (according to the comprehensive research done by Joseph Chambers, a longtime employee at NASA's Langley Center, now retired) listened to half a day's worth of arguments, then exasperatedly declared that he was just going to choose one. It was Modarelli's own.

The seal is rarely seen outside NASA, but it's still in use on certain official paperwork and ceremonial material, and appears, in black-and-white, on page TK of this book. It shows a red airfoil, straining upwards, straddling and casting a shadow upon a yellow planet, set against a blue-black starry sky. The whole thing was surrounded by a ring of type reading NATIONAL AERONAUTICS AND SPACE ADMINISTRATION U.S.A. The lines of the delta had been based on a failed wind-tunnel model Modarelli had spotted in the corner of an engineer's office.

In fact, streamlined parabolic boomerang shapes like this were propagating throughout American design just then, hinting at shock waves and supersonic travel. Speedo, the swimsuit company, had been using one for years, to connote hydrodynamic efficiency. In 1955, Chrysler had adopted a pair of boomerangs, one laid over the other, as part of its “Forward Look” campaign. The Hamilton Watch Company's new line, the very first wristwatches to run on batteries, included boomerang-shaped models called the Ventura and the Pacer. Tables and chairs with slim steel “hairpin” legs showed off similar forms. So did Formica countertops, bowling-alley signs, kitchen drawer pulls, even ashtrays. Literally and figuratively, sonic booms were in the air.

The design for the seal had to go through a long chain of approval. Most of the review came from an ancient-sounding agency called the Heraldic Branch of the Army Institute of the Quartermaster General, followed by the government's Commission on Fine Arts and finally (implausibly) by President Eisenhower himself. The first drawing submitted to the approval process had to be yanked back and redone because the red delta wing had been drawn upside-down.

The seal probably wouldn't be okayed today. it's not much of a design. None of the elements hang together; the lettering is badly handled and a little askew, and over the course of its history, the type changed from a sans serif to a serif face, which made it worse rather than better. The whole thing looks like a piece of clip art. Nonetheless, the Army and the Commission and the president all signed off on it in 1959. When it appeared on a commendation given to Alan Shepard after his first flight, Time magazine offered that the award “looked as if it might have come out of a Cracker Jack box. The Distinguished Service Medal of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is the most unimaginative decoration turned out by the U.S. government so far — and the competition for that title is stiff.” There are NASA old-timers who are still upset about that Time story, but the design hasn't improved any with age.

The seal was also too complicated and fine-grained for widespread use, and Modarelli's design brief had called for a simplified insignia as well. Unlike the seal, it would serve everywhere, from stationery to uniform patches to the exteriors of hangars and spacecraft. It also wouldn't have to clear the Army's Heraldic Branch, just the fine-arts group.

You know what it looks like. The logotype that NASA adopted shortly thereafter — and uses today — bore a relationship to the seal, but was far better and more coherent. The field was a uniform disc of blue (corresponding to Pantone 286, if you happen to be specifying it), with the acronym and a scattering of stars knocked out in white. The letters were orbited by a white satellite on a canted, elliptical path. The red delta wing from the seal (Pantone 185) again jockeys atop it all, bigger this time. The four letters, with big chiseled Latin serifs, were chunky and muscular, befitting the agency's toughness. It was, unlike the seal, a coherent design, if a busy one. It was accepted by the arts commission, though reluctantly, with a note about its “limited sculptural possibilities.”

It also had significant practical flaws, which seems surprising given NASA's technological bent. At a distance, the white letters of the logotype grew hard to read against the star field. When it was printed small, it turned into a blob. In black-and-white documents — which were commonplace — it looked like “a thumbprint,” one designer recalls. When it was printed in color, the blue often rendered badly. Government-issue printing in those days was pretty bad, and when the mix of inks was slightly off, the background turned to mud. As the arts commission had feared, it didn't look very good in 3-D either.

But it resonated within the military and engineering culture of NASA, and perhaps beyond. It offered speed and contrails and the skies themselves; it was not an abstraction but a literal depiction of the agency's mission. It was a boy adventurer's idea of space travel, and quite a few of those boy adventurers had grown up to become the pilots and scientists constituting this new agency and pushing, hard, into space. It spoke to them, and the logotype soon became a ubiquitous presence at the agency's centers, making its way onto aircraft wings, rocket-booster stages, and flight suits. It was painted on buildings at giant size.

Over the next decade, NASA had, it's fair to say, more on its mind than a mildly problematic logo. In 1961, John Kennedy laid out a plan to put a man on the moon and bring him back safely by 1970. It was a shrewd way of funding vast developments in rocket technology — which was to say, ballistic-missile technology — through a program that even some pacifists believed in. It also leveled the playing field with the Soviet Union, because although the U.S.S.R. had already rockets that could put a man in orbit, and were somewhat more advanced than the American ones, neither side had a multistage booster that could get to the moon. If both sides were starting that program from scratch, American industry could probably outpace the Soviet collective.

After JFK was killed a year and a half later, Cape Canaveral became Cape Kennedy, and the push to the Moon became, in part, a tribute to him. Even when the astronauts Roger Chaffee, Edward White, and Gus Grissom died in a horrible launch-pad fire in January 1967 — after which the Moon-bound command module had to be redesigned essentially from scratch — the program never stopped surging forward, in an effort (and at a financial cost) that seems impossible today. On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out onto the Sea of Tranquility, slightly north of the lunar equator, and left on the lunar surface a plaque reading WE CAME IN PEACE FOR ALL MANKIND and a planted American flag. The NASA insignia appeared on their spacesuits, front and back. Though he probably never expected it, James Modarelli had become the first graphic designer to leave his mark on another world.

SECOND STAGE: APOGEE

By 1972, the mood surrounding NASA — and within it — was beginning to shift. Though there was a lot of good science going on at the agency, its blazing-eyed sense of mission was beginning to wane. The semi-autonomous component organizations that made up NASA — the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, the Johnson Space Center in Houston, the Kennedy Space Center in south Florida, and eight others — were still, even after more than a decade, chafing at overarching decisions made at NASA headquarters in Washington. The Viking and Voyager missions to Mars and the outer planets would not arrive for another couple of years, so there were no great pictures coming back from far-off worlds. The first big economic slowdown since World War II, twinned with the newly empowered counterculture, had left a lot of people questioning NASA's budget, saying things like “maybe we’d better solve some problems back on Earth first.” Without a hard goal — the Moon, by order of a martyred president — in sight, the agency was for the first time being asked to justify itself. The final three of the ten Apollo missions to the moon were canceled to save money. Many of the remaining Apollo parts were reassembled into, and used to supply, a prototype space station called Skylab. Though it produced valuable research, and kept three crews in space for, collectively, nearly six months, it failed to catch the public eye in a dramatic way. Its third crew got fed up with Mission Control's tight scheduling and staged a revolt in mid-mission, effectively going on strike until they were granted more free time and less micromanagement. The most attention Skylab ever got from the public was probably when it fell out of orbit and crashed to Earth in July 1979.

The graphic-design business was, by contrast, really coming into its own. The high modernism that had dominated the visual arts — architecture, graphics, fine art — was nearing its zenith of ubiquity and reach. Virtually all big corporations represented themselves with severe geometric forms, and most had finally come to appreciate that good graphics could have extraordinary power. Designers were supplying clients with not just letterheads and logotypes but a full set of treatments collectively known as a “graphic identity.” A few years earlier, the largest communications company ever, AT&T, had asked Saul Bass to revamp its Bell System logo, to which is had made only incremental changes for a century, and Bass redid everything down to the linemen's uniforms. Coca-Cola had begun to play down its signature Spencerian script and Victorian hobble-skirt bottle in favor of the blocky word “Coke” atop a twisty abstracted ribbon. In a weird turn of history, Bauhaus-style modernism, created by a bunch of Socialists in 1920s Europe, had been repurposed as the dominant look of American corporate power.

The federal government was, as you might expect, a sluggish latecomer to that change. Its agencies' graphic identities were inconsistent, some formal, some nonexistent. Even its physical paperwork was behind the times: Owing to an decision made in the 1920s, most government correspondence took place on a nonstandard paper size, eight inches by ten and a half, instead of the eight-and-a-half-by-eleven sheet that the rest of the country had settled upon. Secretaries in firms that dealt with the government had to keep two boxes of stationery in their desks: one for the feds, the other for everyone else. The letters they received back from the government often looked like they, too, were from 1925.

The contemporary-graphic-design banner was borne in by a woman named Nancy Hanks. She was a blue-blood, descended from Nancy Hanks Lincoln, mother of the sixteenth president, and in 1969 was appointed by Richard Nixon to run the National Endowment for the Arts. The NEA was a new organization — she was only its second chairperson — and it was tiny, with an $16 million budget. Hanks, though, had big aims, and fine political skills. She was a moderate Rockefeller Republican, one who could talk persuasively and sanely to Democrats. When, in 1970, the agency was threatened with defunding, she is said to have personally coaxed 100 senators and congresspeople to have switched their votes and supported the agency. (And by the time her term ended eight years later, the NEA budget was $100 million — which is, in inflation-adjusted dollars, more than the agency gets today.)

Nancy Hanks grasped that a graphic-identity program had the potential to do for government agencies what it had done for corporations: convey modernity rather than stodginess, and forward-looking and efficient practices rather than hidebound ones. As Lani Lattin, her deputy, recalled after her death, “We said that if government publications — from tax returns to road signs — were attractive and easy to read, people would read them and respect them. We said that the morale and the productivity of our public servants would rise dramatically if they could work in a decent environment, instead of sitting at tacky desks staring at hideous green walls.” They had the backing of the presidential aide Leonard Garment, who had brought the Nixon White House onboard.

In 1972, Hanks launched the Federal Design Improvement Program, a series of grants allowing government departments to hire architects and designers who could supply those better-looking desks and reports. The agencies themselves, not the NEA, handled the proposals and decisions, though the graphics program was overseen by an NEA executive named Jerome Perlmutter. Early on, the Department of Labor received (among other upgrades) a good-looking logotype of meshing L-shapes that evoked the Stars and Stripes. NASA was likewise early on the list, and in 1974, the Request for Proposals went out.

Danne & Blackburn's submission was, one would think, a long shot. Their firm was very small, without the cachet of Vignelli Associates or Push Pin Studios or the Eames Office or any of the other prominent design shops of the era. It was barely a year old. They had three employees. But its two partners, Richard Danne and Bruce Blackburn, knew what they were doing: Danne had been doing (among other things) a lot of Paramount movie posters, including a superb one for Rosemary's Baby in 1968. Blackburn had a foundation in corporate-identity work, from time spent at the prominent firm Chermayeff & Geismar, and had just won the competition to create a symbol for the United States Bicentennial celebration. Perlmutter had seen and admired that logo, and he called Danne amp; Blackburn that the RFP would be going out shortly, and that they were well-positioned to apply.

Bruce Blackburn (left)
and Richard Danne at
their office at
One Dag Hammarskjöld
Plaza, New York City
Photo:
Alan Orling

Danne & Blackburn's
office at “One Dag,”
1975
Pictured:
Stephen Loges (right),
Ruth Donovan, and
Bruce Blackburn
Photo:
Bill Maris

The two designers pretty quickly realized that the problem was not just one of type sizes and white space but of administration. A good graphics program could unify the eleven NASA centers, at least visually, and at the same time systematize all the documents, signs, and other materials they produced, which at the time varied from crude to nondescript. “We really looked at how we were going to pull all the centers under the banner and link them very strongly with headquarters,” Danne says today. “This was not a popular solution out in the field, but that was really at the core of the thing. And then we started working with pictorial symbols — not like the Meatball but with more going on like that — and what we realized was that with so much chaos, we needed something terribly simple to anchor our program.”

That something came out of Blackburn's pen — and it was a pen, this being a pre-Macintosh age. He drew dozens of variants. (Danne notes, admiringly, that “Bruce worked on this heavily — he was really facile, really fast, and could just push ’em out.”) The drawings grew simpler, because, he says, “we were backing in, in a defense stance, and we said, well, obviously we have to make it more modern.” They settled on a monochrome logo, with a single-width stroke, constructed of just three compound-curve lines. It was bold, like NASA itself; it was technological in its swoop. The two capital As lacked crossbars, suggesting rocket nose cones or the shock waves that those nose cones produced. With a couple of lines of black Helvetica type beneath or alongside that sturdy logo, a system for neatly differentiating the agency's discrete centers snapped into place.

Though the logotype could be produced in black or knocked out of a color in white, it was most often specified in a solid orangey red corresponding to Pantone 185, the same color as the delta-wing from the earlier insignia. (They gave it a name, NASA Red, that the agency still uses.) The form worked at large and small sizes, and would hold up even on the worst printing press or photocopier. The color was a slightly unusual choice, but one that Danne & Blackburn believed in. Airlines and military agencies tended to go with blue logos, suggesting sky and sea and coolness; they instead chose to convey action and heat.

As Danne remembers it, the proposal was badly typed and full of Wite-Out. It also (amazingly enough) completely lacked illustrations. But it was good enough to get them through the first cut, and Danne and Blackburn presented it to NASA together in October 1974. A decent-sized group attended, but really the two opinions in the room that mattered were that of Dr. James Fletcher, the NASA administrator, and his deputy, George Low. Fletcher was the leader who was reshaping the agency's mission to address some of those earthbound problems that taxpayers were grumbling about; he had also been the man who had successfully persuaded the Nixon administration and Congress to back the Space Shuttle program, and got the Voyager and Viking probes underway as well. He was an abstemious Mormon who was open enough to work within a culture of chain-smoking engineers and hard-drinking pilots, and he was known as a cautious, thoughtful scientist.

At the meeting, more than two dozen display boards (reproduced at the end of this volume) showed the logotype in action, on various backgrounds and in many settings. Danne and Blackburn finished their talk, whereupon Fletcher and Low began to offer feedback of the sort that makes graphic designers' heads start to hurt. The conversation very quickly ended up taking a turn that could have been written by Aaron Sorkin for an episode of The West Wing. As Danne remembers it:

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!”

And then, a few minutes later:

Fletcher: “And this color, red, it doesn't make much sense to me.” Low: “What would be better?” Fletcher: “Blue makes more sense ... Space is blue.” Low: “No, Dr. Fletcher, space is black!


NASA seal,
1958–present
Design:
James Modarelli

NASA insignia,
known as
the “Meatball”,
1958–1975,
1992–present
Design:
James Modarelli

NASA logotype,
known as
the “Worm,”
1975–1992
Design:
Danne & Blackburn

Mind you, this was not a rancorous argument. Fletcher probably intended to convey that the minimal design overall, and not specifically the missing crossbars, struck him as underdeveloped rather than merely clean. However his hesitance was meant, though, the conversation cast the final decision in an uncertain light. On the way out, Blackburn and Danne put their chances at 50-50. Back at the office, Blackburn even tried redrawing the logo with the crossbars restored to each A, though it didn't work at all. Only later did they get the call, which came in the form of a letter in the U.S. Mail: In NASA's favored language, it was a go.

The next weeks saw their little shop producing the original version of the manual you see here. Though much of its space is devoted to preparing documents for publication, every application was worked out, from brochures to automobile door decals. Because it was so straightforward, the new logotype could be painted on a big building or airplane, or for that matter on a rocket itself, without losing impact. Its horizontal shape, unlike the meatball, lent itself to placement on airplane fuselages and the like — but not on rockets, because standing it on end was prohibited.

Many corporations and agencies had graphics manuals like this, but this is almost surely the only one that specifies the orientation of a logo when it's placed on a spacecraft. (I suppose it's possible that the Soviets had a graphics manual of their own. Probably not.) Danne remembers today that, when the NASA lettering was stenciled on the Space Shuttle a couple of years later, it was required to be smaller than the words UNITED STATES, and that there were significant limitations on where it could be placed, owing to the various heat-resistant properties of the vehicle's tiled skin. “We weren't going to fight over that one and cause a crash,” he recalls, with a chuckle.

Every image on the book's 90 pages was hand-drawn with India ink and French curves and T-squares, using the laborious, wearying techniques that were then taught in many high schools. Today, half a lifetime later, they are all but lost arts, and although some older designers say they miss them, nobody's going back anytime soon. One inkblot and you had to start the whole drawing over.

By the time the new program was rolled out, a year later, Fletcher — at least publicly — had embraced the new graphics. “I think the new logotype is pleasing to the eye and gives a feeling of unity, technological precision, thrust and orientation toward the future,” he wrote in a letter, seen on page TK of this book, that introduced Blackburn and Danne's work. “I think we were fortunate in recognizing that our graphics could stand improvement; I am confident that the program we now have underway will be second to none.” And, perhaps foreseeing what was to come, he added this: “In order to to succeed, a program which departs from the accustomed must have the full support of every NASA employee. Top-level management must take the lead, our experts in the field of graphic design must follow, and all of us must see that the specifics are diligently monitored to insure that standards of excellence are maintained.” Fletcher knew his agency well, and it sounds like he had picked up on the blowback that was beginning to form.

Engineers, to make a gross generalization, are rationalists. The guy-with-a-pocket-protector-and-a-terrible-wardrobe cliché is, while dated, also telling: Comparatively few are aesthetes. (Though the best ones frequently are.) They do things for good reason, not for good looks. Ask an architect sometime about the engineers who have compromised his or her elegant designs; then ask those engineers what they think of the absurd drawings they were asked to turn into a real building. Chances are, everyone will have a lot to say.

Danne and Blackburn had justified their case well to Fletcher and Low, but the men who did most of NASA's work at the various NASA centers had not seen their presentation or been told about the program. Instead of briefing them, NASA in 1975 sent their top executives a surprise: new stationery with the new logo. Perhaps because they'd been left out of the process, they were irritated, and their disdain found a focus right away, because some of them flat-out hated the new logo. The new symbol, after all, lacked the blue of the sky, the red-white-and-blue of the United States of America. To the hardest-headed literalists, it represented money foolishly spent on décor instead of on spacecraft. They — like quite a few Americans — were suspicious of the spare aesthetics of high modernism, and although they didn't necessarily articulate it, they preferred more literal symbols to abstracted ones. To a certain populist view, design like this felt corporate and soulless rather than romantic and animate. Perhaps surprisingly, some of the same people who spent their days designing titanium nose cones and integrated circuits preferred to spend their evenings in a house built along neo-Colonial lines instead of one made of glass and steel. There was also a noticeable generational divide: Younger employees liked the new logo, and older ones, by and large, did not. The administrators of the individual NASA centers felt that they were, once again, being forced in some stupid new direction by Washington. To them, it was yet another sign that, having achieved the moon, the whole outfit was going blah.

From the beginning, NASA folks have had a knack for nicknames. Each class of astronauts, for example, gets one, from the Original Seven (1959) to the Maggots (1984) to the Chumps (2009). Very quickly, the new logo got an unflattering moniker of its own: the Worm. It was not affectionate, and the word was often pronounced with a disdainful sneer. Modarelli's old insignia, which had up till then been called “the Insignia,” promptly got a nickname of its own. Credit for that goes to Frank (Red) Rowsome, the head of technical publications at NASA headquarters in Washington: He's the one who started calling it “the Meatball.” And really, which would you prefer to represent your mission: something that was hearty, Mediterranean, and delicious, or something slimy, subterranean, and inedible? The Meatball sounded friendly; the Worm was sinister.

Fletcher had a backlash on his hands, and eventually sent Blackburn and Danne themselves on a tour of NASA campuses, in order to re-sell their work to the local administrators and quell the outrage. Danne recalls the visit to Houston, where Chris Kraft — the flight director of Mission Control during many of the space program's triumphs — was running the Johnson Space Center. Kraft had been intensely annoyed about the redesign, and sat through Danne and Blackburn's presentation skeptically. But at the end, he came around, saying, “Why wasn't it handled this way from the start? I don't have to like it, but I can see it's a real program, and I'm okay with it now.” The designers' reasoned approach hadn't quite won everyone over, but it was enough to make the program stick. As did the nicknames.

Outside NASA, at least, the program was considered a big success. When the Reagan administration gave out awards for the best of these federal redesign programs, NASA's was the first winner. Danne & Blackburn got to work with three more federal agencies. The Department of Transportation, its subsidiary the Federal Aviation Administration, and the Army Corps of Engineers all still use D&B logos and graphics to this day.

NASA photo caption:
15 October 1983
83-HC-652
83-H-765
S-83-40555
JOHNSON SPACE CENTER,
HOUSTON, TX
STS-11 CREW
These five astronauts are
in training for NASA's
41B (STS-11) mission,
scheduled early next
year. On the front row
are Vance D. Brand,
commander; and Robert L.
Gibson, pilot. Mission
specialists (back row,
left to right) are
Robert L. Stewart,
Dr. Ronald E. McNair
and Bruce McCandless,
II. Stewart and
McCandless are wearing
extravehicular mobility
units (EMU) spacesuits.
The STS program’s second
extravehicular activity
(EVA) is to be performed
on this flight, largely
as a rehearsal for a
scheduled repair visit
to the Solar Maximum
satellite, on a later
mission. The mannedv
maneuvering unit (MMU)
will make its space debut
on 41B.
Photo:
NASA

THIRD STAGE: RE-ENTRY

If the mood at NASA seemed to be growing uneasy in the early seventies, it was downright gloomy by 1992. The Space Shuttle program, though embraced by the public, had in 1986 seen its first fatal accident in space, the Challenger explosion. The agency had spent more than two years grounded, going through a deep self-examination and mourning period. The post-accident inquiry revealed that the agency's engineering had, at times, been stymied by pernicious and inbuilt bureaucracy. (Among other things, engineers’ widespread use of Microsoft PowerPoint templates to convey complex ideas in bullet points had, inadvertently, made those ideas less clear. One notorious slide had tried to suggest a go-ahead shortly before the Challenger had launched, when in fact it had meant to suggest that the launch be scrubbed.) And as promising as the Space Shuttle had seemed, it had flown much less often than expected, at far greater cost. By the 1990s, its design was also two decades old, and continuing to age. Flaws in the Hubble Space Telescope that it had launched had embarrassed the agency. Spaceflight in low Earth orbit, though highly useful, was simply not as sexy as tooling around on the Moon.

Dan Goldin took over this unhappy organization in 1992. Most of his goals involved slimming it down the agency, which had been perceived as scattershot, slow-moving, spendthrift, and drifty, trying to carry off too many projects of hazy intent. He also aimed to shift many of NASA's traditional functions to the private sector. The jury is still out on his administration's long-term effects, but most NASA-watchers will agree that he was tremendously effective at carrying out those goals.

American graphic design, it's not much of an exaggeration to say, was going through a sharp backlash in these years. If the early seventies had been the zenith of modern design, the early nineties were the peak of postmodernism, wherein pop culture was referenced, cut up, and reshaped, sometimes to the point of absurd incoherence. Even when things didn't go that far, the crispness of high modernism was giving way to busier, more ornate designs that made reference to older forms. (The explosion in the number of typefaces available to designers, owing to the desktop-publishing revolution, probably contributed to this.) Often these references were deployed with irony, but sometimes they were pretty straightforward. For its reworked graphic identity, Apple Computer commissioned a version of Garamond, a typeface whose origins date to the fifteenth century. Coca-Cola re-embraced its script and full name. Twirls of serif type, often awkwardly deployed, seemed to be replacing Helvetica on every package in the supermarket. Massimo Vignelli's bright orange gave way to Michael Graves's soft green. People seemed willing to accept almost anything except rectilinear lines and smooth color fields. Graphics like the Worm were often, and shortsightedly, put in the same class with elephant bell bottoms and seven-inch-wide lapels: embarrassing hangovers from the Decade that Taste Forgot.

One day, just after he took over, Goldin was flying into the Langley Research Center. Someone onboard the plane — possibly Goldin himself; there are conflicting versions of the scene — remarked on a piece of signage that was visible as they taxied in, wondering “why in the world we have that awful logo.” Once they landed, he was met by Paul Holloway, who ran Langley, and Holloway offered a similar pitch. (He was a hardcore Meatball guy, going so far as to demand business cards with the old logo in place of the Worm.) As Goldin recently recalled to the New York Times:

“He said to me, ‘Do you see that?’ I said, ‘Yeah, that's the NASA logo.’ He said, ‘That's the Worm. … If you want to really excite NASA employees about changes coming, why don't you tell them we're going to deworm NASA and bring back the Meatball?’ ”

Goldin turned to an official, and asked, “Can I do that?” “Of course,” came the response. And in Goldin's next speech at Langley, he announced that the Meatball was coming back, to enormous cheers. (His actual words were “the affectionate Meatball will replace the slick NASA logo, and slowly it will die into the horizon and never be seen again,” which tells you something about the prevailing attitude.) The romantics had finally shoved back the aesthetes, as they'd wanted to for nearly two decades. The Worm had been exterminated. Danne & Blackburn had disbanded amicably in 1985; Danne was the one who got the call from his NASA contact, sorrowfully telling him that their standards program had been retired. (Nevertheless, many de-Wormed elements of it linger in NASA graphics to this day.) Modarelli, the next year, received an official commendation.

Over the next few years, the Worm was stripped from printed material, signage, and everything else. Stories abound at NASA about the frantic scrubbing of the Worm from any building or office that Goldin was about to visit, and about his irritation whenever he'd run across one that hadn't been removed. It was not a small effort, and in fact, the Worm had hung on a few years more, it probably wouldn't have been eradicated at all. A logo change costs money to execute — new stationery, new signage, lots of labor — and Goldin himself soon set in place a philosophy at the agency, known as “better-faster-cheaper,” that governs it to this day. Given NASA's latter-day constraints, the “cheaper” would probably have involved standing pat.

Which, so far, it has done since 1992. Yet the Worm still pokes its head out now and again. it's still up there in orbit, where it's painted on many satellites that have been zinging around the Earth for decades, and nobody's going up there to repaint them. it's chiseled in granite at the entrance to the NASA headquarters building in Washington, and has not been jackhammered off. The Space Shuttle orbiters were repainted in the late nineties, but the Enterprise — the proto-Shuttle used for landing tests, now in retirement at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum in New York — still displays its Worm.

Besides, the Meatball is not a failure. It is — as was pointed out to me by Hamish Smyth, who worked with his colleague Jesse Reed to produce the beautifully made volume you're reading now — a first-rate uniform patch. Even if you're a believer in the virtues of the Worm, the Meatball has a place in the NASA graphics universe. Government printing is vastly better than it used to be, and the blue now reproduces pretty well most of the time. When it's rendered well, the Meatball tells a story, and provides continuity. But it's hard to argue, from a design standpoint, that it's really better than the Worm. The Worm is forever modern; the Meatball, despite its charms, will never be. For an agency whose mission is so thoroughly directed at the future, a retro emblem is an eccentric choice at best.

In fact, the agency has begun to use a simplified, thinned-out version of the Meatball, with a white background that makes it much more versatile and reproducible, in certain applications like aircraft tails. (NASA calls this the Swoosh; I think of it as the Vegetarian Meatball.) Today's edition of the NASA graphics manual devotes quite a few pages to handling the Meatball itself on light and dark backgrounds and in single-color versions, which can get tricky. It specifies that it should never be printed smaller than five-eighths of an inch in diameter, lest it blot itself out. A small box also shows the Worm, with a stern note: “Use of the retired NASA logo requires permission from the Assistant Administrator for Public Affairs or designee. The retired NASA logo and insignia can never be used together.” That may be, in part, because there have been attempts to graft the Worm's letterforms onto the Meatball's orb. The Wormball, some people call this. it's terrible.

Could there be one more reversal ahead? Given the cost it's unlikely, but it's also not impossible to imagine. To the post-postmodern eye, the Worm looks a lot cooler and less dated than it did when Dan Goldin cast his eye upon it that day at Langley; the Meatball, by contrast, looks increasingly like kitsch, and the starry speckles in the background mean that it reproduces badly on a computer or phone screen, where so many graphics live these days. And in 2015, when Matt Damon found himself stranded on Mars in the blockbuster film The Martian, his spacesuit bore a logo for a fictional spacecraft, the Ares III, on its shoulder. Its letterforms were a deep orangey-red, made of curvilinear single-width strokes, with the crossbeam of the A absent. It was unmistakably a neo-Worm, and it looked not retro but once again futuristic. If we're headed to Mars in the not-too-distant future, might the agency might see a new (or new-old) logo as a way to rebrand itself once more? Could a spacecraft painted in NASA Red land on the Red Planet? If so, that Star Trek episode, the one set in 2037, will turn out to be right after all. The 52-star flag is going to be the tricky part.

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Chambers, Joseph R., and Mark A. Chambers. Emblems of Exploration: Logos of the NACA and NASA. Washington: National Air and Space Administration Office of Communications, 2015. www.nasa.gov/sites/default/files/atoms/files/emblems_of_exploration.pdf

Chang, Kenneth. “$79 for an Out-of-Date Book About a Modern NASA Logo.” The New York Times. September 1, 2015.

Danne, Richard. Dust Bowl to Gotham. San Francisco: Blurb, 2015.

Hine, Thomas. The Great Funk: Falling Apart and Coming Together (On a Shag Rug) in the Seventies. New York: Sarah Crichton Books, 2007.

Hine, Thomas. Populuxe. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1986.

Memory Alpha. “The Royale” (episode). Accessed November 21, 2015. www.memory-alpha.wikia.com/wiki/The_Royale_(episode)

National Endowment for the Arts. “Setting the Standard: The NEA Initiates the Federal Design Improvement Program.” Accessed November 21, 2015. www.arts.gov/article/setting-standard-nea-initiates-federal-design-improvement-program#sthash.LMcFjjyY.dpuf

Straight, Michael. Nancy Hanks: An Intimate Portrait: The Creation of a National Commitment to the Arts. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1988.

Tufte, Edward. Beautiful Evidence. Cheshire, Connecticut: Graphics Press, 2006.

Wolfe, Tom. The Right Stuff. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1979.


Text copyright © by Christopher Bonanos, a writer and editor at New York magazine. Bonanos is also the author of Instant: The Story of Polaroid (Princeton Architectural Press, 2012) and a biography of the news photographer Weegee (Henry Holt, forthcoming in 2017).

This essay is included in the NASA Graphics Standards Manual Reissue.