Design: Danne & Blackburn (USA)
In 1975, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), introduced a new unified visual communications system. This was commissioned as part of the US Federal Design Improvement Program, a 1972 initiative to modernise the use of design by government agencies.
A central part of the new identity was the NASA logotype, devised by Bruce Blackburn, of the New York agency Danne and Blackburn. The ‘Worm’, as it is more popularly known, consists of NASA’s initials reduced to their simplest form, with the A’s abstracted into minimal cones that metaphorically suggest rockets ready for take-off. The one width, continuous-stroke letters evoke “a feeling of unity, technological precision, thrust and orientation toward the future.”
The Worm was used in a vibrant shade of red, and was often accompanied by auxiliary information set in Helvetica. The logotype achieved maximum visibility during the pioneering flights of the Space Shuttle in the 1980s. According to designer Michael Johnson: “The Worm came to symbolise space travel itself – modern, flowing, sinuous, a continuous line… Corporate America identity design had its role model, and needed no further prompting… The Worm created a new benchmark to which designers could refer when they were seeking to appear ‘new’ and ‘technological’.”
The emblematic design program by Danne and Blackburn, not only had to consider the design from a graphic viewpoint, but also had to take into consideration the technical aspects, such as the application of the logotype onto spacecraft, uniform patches, publications and satellite markings. Over the years, the program was widely cited, and in 1984, it was awarded one of the first Presidential Awards for Design Excellence.
In 1992, as part of a process to restore its badly shaken morale caused by the 1986 Space Shuttle disaster, NASA scrapped the clean and progressive Worm, and re-instated ‘The Meatball’ (an insignia comprising of a sphere, stars and orbit, designed by James Modarelli in 1959). NASA chief Daniel S. Goldin, believed that the older logo, laden with ‘Buck Rogers’ imagery, represented the optimistic days of glory for the space program.
Nowadays, and sadly for design purists, the far superior Worm is only used on retro merchandise – a treatment viewed in some quarters as an act of cultural desecration.
In April 2020, NASA joyfully announced that “The Worm is Back” with the unveiling of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket. According to NASA: “The retro, modern design of the agency’s logo will help capture the excitement of a new, modern era of human spaceflight.” The worm has since wiggled its way across the SpaceX spacesuits, and other equipment and support structures at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.