NASA's 'worm' logo will return to space
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NASA's 'worm' logo will return to space
In a photo from NASA, the "worm" logo designed by Bruce Blackburn. The new old logo, dropped in the 1990s in favor of a more vintage brand, will adorn a SpaceX rocket that is to carry astronauts to the space station in May. NASA via The New York Times.

by Kenneth Chang

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- It was designed for NASA in the 1970s, and it hasn’t been back to space since the 1990s. But in 2020, it will head to orbit once more.

We’re talking about “the worm.”

It’s a logo that a generation grew up with — a minimalist twisting of red letters that is nicknamed after terrestrial invertebrates. NASA used it from 1975, when it was introduced as part of a cleaner visual redesign for the space agency, to 1992, when it was kicked to the side.

But the familiar yet long unused modern symbol will be seen on the side of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket when two NASA astronauts, Douglas G. Hurley and Robert L. Behnken, head to the International Space Station, a mission scheduled for the second half of May. They will be the first to launch to orbit from American soil since 2011, and the new old logo was dusted off to commemorate the milestone.

In 1992, Daniel S. Goldin, then NASA’s administrator, decided that the best way to excite people about the future was to harken to the agency’s heady early days. He resurrected an earlier insignia with a different nickname — “the meatball.”

The meatball — a blue circle filled with stars, a red swoosh that represents an airplane wing and a spacecraft orbiting the wing — was NASA’s logo during the agency’s greatest accomplishments, including the Apollo moon landings, and NASA has used it for the last 28 years.

The worm, however, was not forgotten, especially among members of Generation X such as Jim Bridenstine, the current NASA administrator. Bridenstine often points out that he is the first administrator to be born after the end of the Apollo program.

“I grew up in the ’80s,” Bridenstine said in an interview. “In the ’80s, the worm logo was the logo of NASA. I’ve always been kind of partial to it.”

Five years ago, two graphic designers, Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth, republished an official 1976 document, the “National Aeronautics and Space Administration Graphics Standards Manual,” which prescribed how the new logo should be used. The reissue is now in its fifth printing, with more than 30,000 copies sold.

“We had said among ourselves, ‘How cool would it be if it actually came back one day?’” Smyth said. “It was kind of the fantasy. We never seriously thought it would happen.”

Since 2017, use of the worm logo has been permitted on T-shirts and other souvenirs sold all over the world.

“We’ve just seen it come to rise in popular culture, in fashion in particular,” Reed said.

Since the retirement of the space shuttles in 2011, American astronauts have relied on Russia and its Soyuz rockets for transportation to orbit. But as SpaceX was getting close to the first launch of its Falcon 9 rocket and Crew Dragon capsule with astronauts aboard, Bridenstine thought, “It would be a fitting tribute to that moment to bring back the worm as an inspiration to the nation.”

The announcement of the worm revival was initially scheduled to go out April 1 when it might have been mistaken as an April Fool’s joke. It was pushed back a day.

“What they were trying to represent in the ’70s was cutting-edge technology,” Smyth said. “They got it so right that it still looks like cutting-edge technology even though it’s close to 40 years later.”

By coincidence, April 2 is the birthday of Richard Danne, the designer who directed the 1970s graphics reinvention.

“I was thrilled to see the announcement, especially since it arrived on my 86th birthday!” Danne wrote via email. “What a marvelous present here.”

It was not a complete surprise. About a month ago, designers from SpaceX reached out to Reed and Smyth to find out the correct shade of red they should be using. The men put SpaceX in touch with Danne.

“Naturally I started putting two and two together,” Danne said.

In the manual, the color was defined as simply “NASA Red.” Today, there is a universal color matching system defined by the Pantone company, and NASA Red is Pantone color number 179.

For now, the worm will appear just on the one SpaceX rocket, and NASA is keeping the meatball as its primary icon. But Bridenstine said the worm could find a wider role at NASA. “We’re kind of working through it right now,” he said.

Bridenstine said he could imagine that a second spacecraft for taking NASA astronauts to the space station, the Starliner built by Boeing, might also sport the worm logo. “We haven’t gotten that far yet,” he said. “But I imagine when the Starliner launches, it would likely have the worm as well.”

But the Starliner will not have its first crewed flight for a while. After a flawed test flight without astronauts in December, Boeing will repeat the uncrewed mission before launching astronauts, The Washington Post reported Monday. The company later acknowledged the decision.

Regardless of how NASA decides to mix and match two very different designs, fans of the worm are ecstatic that a beloved icon that had been tossed into the dustbins of graphic design indeed has a future.

“I’m just over the moon that they did this,” Smyth said.

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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