Last month, NASA welcomed Richard Danne to its headquarters in Washington to celebrate the work he did nearly half a century ago.
Mr. Danne has never studied the stars. He has never built a rocket.
But he and his design partner, Bruce Blackburn, came up with one of the space agency’s most recognizable elements: the logo known as the “worm,” with the acronym NASA written in bold, beefy, orange-red letters.
The worm endures, even though NASA abandoned it more than 30 years ago, returning to the “meatball” – its original logo, with a blue circle, stars, an elliptical orbital trail and a swoosh representing an airplane wing .
In recent years the clean, futuristic look of the worm has experienced a resurgence inside and outside the space agency; it is now prominently displayed on the sides of spacecraft, T-shirts, sneakers and souvenirs.
This summer it became three-dimensional, a huge sculpture in front of NASA headquarters and a picturesque backdrop for tourists’ snapshots.
“I love being a part of pop culture,” Danne, 89, said.
Look at some of NASA’s recent spacecraft, like the Orion capsule that circled the moon last year, and you’ll see an unexpected mash-up of the two logos.
“Some might say they are from different planets,” David Rager, NASA’s creative director, said at an event celebrating Mr. Danne and the Worm last month.
For half a century it has been one or another logo of the space agency. NASA began using meatballs in 1959, a year after its founding. It was the logo on Neil Armstrong’s spacesuit when he set foot on the Moon in 1969.
The worm is a child of the 70s.
A small, newly formed design firm, Danne & Blackburn, won a contract from the National Endowment for the Arts when that body was trying to give federal agencies a visual remake. Mr. Blackburn, who had designed the symbol used to mark America’s bicentennial celebration, played with various pictorial approaches, but settled on a futuristic version of the four NASA letters. The two A’s, evidently without crossbars, suggested the nose of a rocket or engine nozzles.
“It was extremely simple,” Mr. Blackburn said in 2015. (He died in 2021.) “He was direct.”
The work Danne and Blackburn delivered to NASA went far beyond a simple four-letter logo. They also put together a compendium of dos and don’ts: the correct size and use of the logo, the placement of any accompanying text, the specific shade of red. The Graphic Standards Manual sought to give a cohesive look to the agency and its centers across the country.
“This is something that didn’t exist before our redesign,” Danne said. “The publications and forms were quite messy, radically uneven in both language and appearance.”
Mr. Danne said much of the work went into visually decluttering the NASA organization. They rewrote NASA forms to make them shorter and clearer, and those shorter forms saved on printing costs. They specified standardized layouts, with limited combinations of characters, which allowed NASA to publish publications more quickly.
“The fact that it looked better was kind of the icing on the cake,” Danne said during the panel discussion.
However, many NASA employees deeply disliked the worm and felt that the meatball, which represented the triumphs of the Apollo program, had been thrown away and replaced with something sterile and soulless.
After the loss of the Space Shuttle Challenger and its crew of seven in 1986, and early problems with the Hubble Space Telescope and its out-of-focus mirror, NASA’s morale suffered.
In 1992, Daniel S. Goldin, appointed NASA administrator by President George H. W. Bush, sought to rekindle the enthusiasm of NASA’s early days and announced the return of meatballs. His farewell to the worm was not unlike the soliloquy of a cinematic villain about to eliminate the hero.
“He will slowly die,” Goldin told an applauding audience at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia, “and will never be seen again.” (South Florida Sun Sentinel headline: “Maggot Transforms: NASA Trash Scorns Logo.”)
Except the worm never completely went away.
People like Michael Bierut, a partner at design firm Pentagram, lamented the loss. “The worm is a good-looking brand, and it looked fantastic on the space shuttle,” Bierut told the New York Times Magazine in 2009. “By any objective measure, the worm was and is absolutely appropriate, and the meatball was and It’s an amateur mess.
In 2015, Hamish Smyth and Jesse Reed, two designers then at Mr. Bierut’s firm, used a crowdfunding effort to bring back into print the graphics standards manual that Mr. Danne and Mr. Blackburn had created for NASA 40 years ago. The document is now in its seventh printing and more than 35,000 copies have been sold.
A couple of years later, in 2017, Coach approached NASA, hoping to release a collection of NASA-themed jackets, sneakers and bags, and they wanted to use the worm, too. “I went back to our legal department,” said Bert Ulrich, NASA’s entertainment and branding liaison, “and they said, ‘Well, maybe you can use it in a vintage way.’ And so we started allowing it again.”
It was then that the worm began to appear on the shirts again.
In 2020, NASA sent the worm back into space, aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9, the first American rocket to carry astronauts into orbit since the retirement of the space shuttles.
Just as Goldin thought the return of the meatball would excite NASA employees who wanted to recapture the glory days of Apollo, 2020 NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine thought the return of the worm would inspire those who, like him, grew up with it as NASA’s logo. “I was always a little partial to him,” Mr. Bridenstine said then.
Now the worm is back. And the meatball is still there too, still the official NASA badge.
The agency put together a committee, including Danne and Rager, then working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California, to figure out how to use the logos together harmoniously.
Use of the worm remains limited, “a supporting element to our insignia,” Rager said. “You have to have special approval to use it. We try to use it on applications where it’s big and bold.”
On the Orion spacecraft, the worm appeared clearly visible, on the adapter ring between the capsule and the service module that provided propulsion and energy, while a small meatball was painted on the capsule, next to the American flag.
The meatball “looks like the logo of a government agency that has some clout,” he said. “It gives a really nice authority and feels connected to legacy.”
But the meatball is a complicated graphic, with multiple colors, and not easily recognizable from a distance. “The worm is kind of the opposite,” Rager said. “So those two things balance each other out.”
Mr. Bierut, one of the panelists last month, warmed up a bit to the meatball. “If you Google me and this topic, you’ll find me saying the meatball is a terrible, terrible, terrible logo,” he said. “And I have since revised my thinking about it.”
The meatball was the product of a culture similar to that of the military. “So the idea that the insignia, like a patch, represents some kind of loyalty to you and your colleagues and the mission that you’re doing is really important,” Bierut said.
Mr. Danne still doesn’t like meatballs, but he’s proud of the worm’s return and is happy with the coexistence of the two logos. “They’re so different,” he said. “We found a way to make it work. It is ideal? Probably not. But it’s pretty close to being good. And he satisfied everyone, so I can’t argue with that.”
Mr. Rager said people at NASA used to fall into two camps: meatballs versus worms.
“Since we reintroduced the worm, I haven’t heard of it,” he said. “In fact, now that that divide is no longer such a big thing, people appreciate both.”
Photographs from NASA archives and “The Worm,” a monograph published by The Standards Manual, 2020.
Produced by Antonio de Luca and Matt McCann.