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The 'worm' is back! NASA revives its retro logotype on SpaceX rocket

April 2, 2020

— A blast from NASA's past has returned for the blastoff of the first American astronauts to launch into orbit from U.S. soil in almost a decade.

The space agency on Thursday (April 2) revealed that its previously long-retired logotype, affectionately referred to as the "worm," has been officially returned to service for SpaceX's first crewed launch to the International Space Station. The flight will mark the first launch of NASA astronauts from a U.S.-based launchpad since the final mission of the space shuttle in July 2011.

"The worm is back!" NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine announced on Thursday. "When the SpaceX Falcon 9 lifts off carrying NASA astronauts aboard Crew Dragon, it will sport the iconic symbol to mark the return of human spaceflight on American rockets from American soil."

The retro logotype has now been added to the booster that will launch astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken on SpaceX's Demo 2 mission, targeted to take flight from Kennedy Space Center in Florida in mid- to late-May. A SpaceX photo released by NASA shows the worm, rendered in "NASA red," emblazoned on the side of the Falcon 9's first stage.

The application marks NASA's first use of the worm on spaceflight hardware since the logotype was unceremoniously retired in 1992.

Designed for the space agency by Richard Danne and Bruce Blackburn, founders of a New York design studio, the worm was first introduced in 1974 as part of the Federal Graphics Improvement Program of the National Endowment for the Arts. A graphics standards manual published by the artists in 1976 instructed NASA how the worm was to replace the agency's Apollo-era vector and star-adorned insignia, dubbed the "meatball," as its visual identity.

The worm was displayed on the wings of NASA's space shuttle orbiters, on the spacesuits that astronauts wore into orbit (beginning with the Apollo-Soyuz Test Project in July 1975) and on the Hubble Space Telescope, among many other uses. But despite its widespread appearance and it being easier to reproduce using the then-available 1970s technology, the worm was never fully accepted by the NASA workforce.

"Many longtime NASA employees were dismayed by the replacement of their beloved meatball with the trendy new insignia, which they called the 'worm' in a truly derogatory sense," Joseph Chambers and Mark Chambers wrote in "Emblems of Exploration," NASA's official history of its logos, published in 2015.

One of the people who took issue with the look of the worm was Daniel Goldin, who soon after becoming NASA Administrator in 1992 ordered for the eradication of the "awful" worm to boost what he saw as a deflated moral among many of the space program's workers.

"It seems only fitting that the original NASA insignia — affectionately we know it as the 'meatball' — will be part of today and tomorrow. The can-do spirit of the past is alive and well. The magic is back," Goldin said in an agency-wide address. "The old NASA insignia is back because the men and women of NASA ordered it to be back. A classic, it never goes out of style!"

In the three decades since, though, the outlawed worm has gained a "retro-cool" status — both inside and outside the space agency. In response, NASA loosened its rules for merchandisers, allowing for the limited return of the worm on apparel and souvenirs in 2017. The logotype was quickly incorporated by both high-end fashion designers and big box retailers, resulting in range of new, worm-adorned products, from leather purses and limited edition shoes to mass-marketed t-shirts and children's toys.

In revealing the worm on SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket on Thursday, NASA made it clear that the meatball remains its official logo. The worm was chosen to "help capture the excitement of a new, modern era of human spaceflight" and will be featured in other official ways on the Demo-2 mission and in the future. NASA is still assessing however, how and where it will be used.

"It seems the worm logo wasn't really retired," NASA's announced on its website. "It was just resting up for the next chapter of space exploration."


The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that will launch the company's first Crew Dragon spacecraft with NASA astronauts aboard now bears NASA's long-retired "worm" logotype as a symbol of the return to human spaceflight on American rockets from U.S. soil. (SpaceX)

Though their rocket will display the "worm," NASA astronauts Doug Hurley and Bob Behnken will don SpaceX spacesuits for the Demo-2 mission adorned with the "meatball," NASA's official logo. (NASA)

The last time that a NASA spaceflight lifted off with the "worm" logo was space shuttle Discovery's STS-91 mission in 1998. (NASA)

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