If I had to choose between my fondness for NASA’s two logos—”the Meatball” and “the Worm” (or what I call “Spaghetti”)—I’d sacrifice sublime modern design for classic Buck Rogers futurism. I have a sentimental attachment to the older, prosaic Meatball. The Worm, while smart, clean and modern, is perfect in corporate space age precision but lacks the outer-space romance embedded in the former version. Such is the essence of logo/trademarks. Long before the advent of “brand strategy,” manufactured sentimentalism—concocted heritage—was a rationale on which many successful identities were built.
To honor the cultural relevance of NASA’s Worm logotype, its designer Richard Danne will be on hand with a host of NASA and brand experts at a special event today (11:30 a.m. ET) at the agency’s headquarters in Washington (broadcasting live on NASA Television, the NASA app and YouTube.
My colleague Charlotte Beach will cover the historic discussion for PRINT later this week, while what follows is a decidedly more personal recollection of the Meatball.
From 1960 through 1963 I was president of The Astronaut Fan Club. I was also founder and its only member.
You might say it was a front for getting as much NASA swag as possible. Don’t get me wrong, the astronauts were my heroes. We lived in the era of heroes and it was for that reason I wanted (and still possess) every iota of paper ephemera I could absorb.
My strategy was simple. I typed letters everyday, seven days a week, to each and every NASA employee, Mercury, Gemini and Apollo astronaut and X-14 pilot asking them for autographed photos and whatever else they could spare. I was so persistent that Chuck Yeager, the famed test pilot and breaker of the sound barrier, asked me to stop writing him.
The Mercury astronauts were more generous (or at least less annoyed by my mail-stalking). They would send “personal” letters and mostly stock photos. But Gus Grissom one of the Project Mercury Seven and the first astronaut to die when a fire consumed his Apollo command module, sent me an actual signature.
To look at this low-impact design and illustration from the ’60s takes me back to when things were simple. I admire the NASA worm logo designed by Danne and Blackburn for symbolically bringing the space program into the space age, but this comic book or Flash Gordon graphic simplicity evoked an innocence that we’ll never see again.
Should NASA have returned to the “meatball” logo? No! There is no going back to the moment when Alan Shepard took Freedom Seven up into space for a 15-minute sub-orbital flight. It is also a shame that as a nation we are looking too much at our collective navels than into the far reaches of space for our moral compass.
This NASA swag is not a monument to design but it is a record of when heroics were valued and leaders were respected because they were heroes.