The NASA logo has gone through a few changes, and we’ve even seen one come back after being retired. The most recognizable logos, affectionately known as the “meatball” and the “worm,” are the perfect symbols of optimism that underlie the feeling of exploration and incredible journeys NASA is known for.
But where did the logos come from, and how did they evolve? Let’s dive into the history of the NASA logo and the brand itself.
Since the beginning of space exploration, NASA, otherwise known as the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, has been at the forefront. It’s seen incredible success, and out-of-this-world achievements, and has provided the people of the world with new information that has changed the way we think about our planet and the universe.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is an independent agency and a part of the United States federal government. They are responsible for the civil space program, aeronautics research, and space research.
NASA was established in 1958, and it was the descendant of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). Its aim was to fulfill the U.S. space development effort with a distinctly civilian orientation, with a focus on peaceful applications in space science.
Employing some of the world’s most brilliant scientists, engineers, and mathematicians, the space agency has pioneered exploration into uncharted territory. NASA is responsible for opening up a new era of human spaceflight, thanks to its brave and determined efforts to explore the vast reaches of the universe.
As NASA has grown, its logo has also changed and evolved from the first icon that symbolized the NACA to the memorable images we see today.
NASA’s Logo Over Time
As one of the most reputable and influential global organizations, NASA needs a powerful logo to be worthy of carrying its weight. As such, there haven’t been many logo redesigns during its history, and the two that are still used by the Administration are both globally recognizable and share somewhat odd nicknames — the “Meatball” and the “Worm”.
When we see NASA use a logo today, it’s typically one of three main options. The most popular are the so-called meatball and its official seal. However, the “worm” logo is also frequently used for specific promotional circumstances. In addition to these chief icons, NASA has also developed new emblems for particular projects and endeavors, including the below images.
The Original Logo for NACA (1915)
The original logo, though not as famous, was also a visual identity for the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, the predecessor of NASA, which was established in 1915. We wouldn’t have the organization we have now without them, so it’s appropriate to pay a nod to it.
The NACA logo featured a stylized badge with wings. They were colored yellow with a black outline. The wordmark, also in black, sat in the central section of the emblem and was written in a simple, stylish sans-serif typeface.
This simple badge was well-balanced and professionally executed. It did its job reflecting the original organization and its purposes.
From there, the logos most will recognize come into play.
The Meatball NASA Logo (1958-1975)
NASA and its logo were born in 1958 and 59, respectively. The logo was developed by one of the Administration’s employees, James Modarelli. When it was created, staff throughout the organization instantly started calling it the “Meatball.”
The logo, which circulated until 1975 and was brought back again in 1992, showcased a blue circle, which symbolized the sky, with white stars, and a red V-shaped wave or ribbon. That element was created to represent aeronautics in general.
The logo also featured a bold wordmark in serif lettering that was colored white and sat in the center of the circle. A thin white orbit trail swooshed around it.
This emblem also became a basis for the NASA seal. The seal is used for special events and in official ceremonies and locations. It also features a circular blue badge with a wide white frame and yellow outline.
The meatball also affected the design of another logo, one that only caught the eye of dedicated Star Trek fans.
In 1964, William Ware Theiss, a costume designer for the renowned TV show, was tasked with designing the logo for Starfleet Command, the space federation program central to the show.
He emulated the red vector and starry sky from NASA’s meatball logo, and you can see the original Starfleet logo depicts a star-studded blue globe and a golden vector as a loving homage.
When the crew of the Enterprise retrieved a piece of a NASA vessel, however, it was sporting the next logo.
NASA’s Worm Logo (1975-1992)
In 1975, the “Worm” logo made its way into NASA, even if it was quickly replaced by the circular emblem in 1992.
In another twist, it was brought back as a secondary badge in 2020.
It is a logotype, where the capital letters of the organization’s acronym are executed in a custom smooth sans-serif typeface. They showcase rounded angles and distinct cuts to create a single flowing line. You can see both the letter “As” of the inscription are missing their horizontal bars in order to continue that one-line feeling.
The smooth contour of the inscription reminded people of a worm in motion, which is where the icon got its funny nickname from.
The creator of the “Worm Logo” had an interesting story.
Born in 1934 at the height of the Great Depression, Richard Danne was raised on a farm in Oklahoma during the Dust Bowl. He grew up with a love of music and artistic expression that he favored over his studies.
However, he did go to college, and after attending Oklahoma State University, his excellent work ethic and natural curiosity about graphic communication and its evolution led him to UCLA’s Graduate School of Design.
It wasn’t to last, though. For many, the most important design work was being done in New York. So in 1963, Danne packed a few belongings and traveled across the country to pursue his dreams. It was a risky move, and he had no way back to California.
It didn’t take too long for Danne to establish himself as a part of New York’s tight-knit graphic design scene, and after a few years trying his hand at various projects, from film titles to creating the identity for Harvard Business School, he was introduced to Bruce Blackburn, a fellow New York designer.
The two men quickly discovered they both shared a similar design philosophy and went on to found Danne & Blackburn. Soon, they were taking on projects together and growing their agency.
What truly kicked them into the stratosphere was one of their earliest projects, redesigning the visual identity of the NASA space agency. The Mercury and Apollo space programs had recently been quite successful, and NASA felt the need for a new style and fresh face.
In fact, NASA was one of the first federal agencies to request proposals once the Federal Design Improvement program had been established. Although the designers didn’t know it at the time, Danne and Blackburn would soon take on a project that would stand as one of the most iconic and timeless creations in the history of graphic design.
That design was the red worm NASA logo.
However, not everyone was a fan of the new redesign, and older NASA staffers hated the stripped-down look. They were the ones who began calling this new red logo “the worm” and openly stated they wanted NASA to bring back the meatball.
In 1992, these somewhat disgruntled employees got their wish. President George W. Bush appointed Daniel Goldin as the head of NASA, and Goldin had worked there during the meatball days. What’s more, he openly hated the worm.
As he embarked on his new position, Goldin toured the agency’s headquarters. While he was there, he asked what he could do to improve employee morale while he was in charge. Paul Holloway, director of NASA’s Langley Research Center, spoke up and unabashedly stated that he should “restore the meatball.”
Goldin did so, and the meatball took the worm’s place. It’s remained in place ever since, with the slight addendum that would come in 2020.
The Current Logo for NASA
The Meatball is the official NASA logo since 1992. While it’s not the long-lasting badge of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, it has been the most popular one. You can find it on various goods, including t-shirts and keychains, and it spans the globe in recognition.
On the Meatball logo, the NASA name is still shown in those white capital letters on a round solid blue background with small white stars and a comet. You’ll also still find the red strokes in the shape of a horizontally oriented “V.” The red symbol also resembles a stylized bird flying into the sky with its wings gently curving at the tips.
However, it’s not the only logo we see used currently.
The NASA Worm insignia from the 1970s through the early 90s came back in 2020. It is used along with the Meatball. This minimalistic, stylish logotype with bold red letters on a plain background and been embraced by new space fans and is seen as more modern and powerful. It complements the classic elements and lines of the meatbal badge.
The Worm is also showcased on various clothing and souvenir items but is less popular than the Meatball, likely due to its simplicity and lack of design elements. The bold smooth letters are red by default. However, their color has changed depending on the color of the item, which seems to be done intentionally.
The “seal” symbol
When NASA takes part in presentations and ceremonies, as a presenter or guest, the agency uses a unique, stylized version of its official emblem. This symbol is called a “seal”. In addition to classic elements of the meatball, stars, orbital path, and vector elements, the seal also includes two planets and a “The National Aeronautics and Space Administration U.S.A.” inscription surrounding the border.
The red “National Aeronautics And Space Administration USA” title sits around the frame’s perimeter, solidifying the shape and harkening back to the official seals and insignia of national and global organizations and states. The yellow outline is reflected by the yellow planet that sits against a blue background inside the circle. The red V ribbon and a white orbit are also focused around the planet.
The NASA seal is naturally illustrative in nature, and the key element is that stylized pair of wings. Always tied to aeronautics, here it’s even more reminiscent of a supersonic wing, which was designed by aeronautical engineer Clint Brown.
Linking back to the NACA emblem, the wing shape straddles that yellow planet, which is orbited like a body in space with a moon and stars near it. The shadow the wing casts on the planet gives the look a three-dimensional feel, and the tiny decorative stars add more detail.
After several officials within NASA provided their input, the seal went through even more rounds of approval with stakeholders. It went to the Heraldic Branch of the Army Office of the Quartermaster General first and then to the Fine Arts Commission.
In fact, Clint Brown cleverly noticed that in the original drawing, the wing design had been placed upside down, so the artwork was sent back for revisions. After a second look by both the above agencies, the NASA Administrator Dr. T. Keith Glennan signed off on the design, and it was given to President Eisenhower for final approval.
NASA Logo Key Elements
With just its name and a simplified version of our beautiful night sky, the NASA logos demonstrate the organization’s mission, history, and national identity. Each design has had a few key elements.
1. Red, White, & Blue
The “meatball” insignia uses three colors. You’ll find a bright red, set at Pantone 185, a dark blue that reminds us of the night sky, set at Pantone 286, and, of course, white. The NASA logotype worm is also that trademark red and typically sits against a white background. The official seal also uses red, white, and blue, with a small addition of yellow. As our national colors, it makes sense that these are so predominant in the designs.
2. Stars & Wave
The star detailing and red wave motif are the two main focal points of both the meatball design and the official seal. Without them, the icons would be unrecognizable.
3. Bold Font
The meatball NASA logo showcases a bold serif type where each letter is capitalized.
The custom typeface of the logotype worm has thick, bold letters. You’ll also see half of the bars are extra-thick, and the triangular serifs are short and sharp, making them even more striking. The font of the logo is between similar typefaces like Queskile Voyage Medium and Fiducia Serif. However, most of the contours are modified and tailored to the logo’s exact specifications.
There are also modern designer fonts, such as Space Std Bold and NASAlization Bold, that evoke this logotype.
The NASA logos haven’t changed much, which is a true testament to their staying power. And while not everyone loved the worm at first, it looks great alongside the modern logos of today. What’s more, NASA’s unique adoption of two official logos makes promoting the agency even more flexible. They have the option to choose whichever logo feels right for the particular job. Unless, of course, it’s an official function, in which case we’ll see their traditional seal representing all that NASA stands for.
It’s unlikely the recognition and importance of NASA will change any time soon, and alongside the organization’s powerful message and work, its logo stands as a reminder to set your sights to the stars. Perhaps if we do find intelligent life in space, they’ll also be very familiar with NASA’s red wave, blue sky, and white stars.