What began as a single instance on the side of a rocket has now grown into a full infestation. The "worm," NASA's former logo that was retired 30 years ago, has taken over the first mission to fly astronauts to orbit from a U.S. launchpad in nearly a decade.
The worm, as the 1970s NASA logotype is affectionately known, has gone from in recent years being restricted to use on t-shirts and souvenirs to now adorning almost every prominent surface associated with SpaceX's Demo-2 mission, the first flight of NASA astronauts from a U.S. launchpad since the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011.
First added to SpaceX's Falcon 9 as the rocket was being prepared to launch Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley to the International Space Station, the worm has since wiggled its way across the mission's other equipment and support structures at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
The logo, which is distinguished from NASA's circular insignia (the "meatball") by its simple, stylized lettering, was then added in decal form to the back window of SpaceX's Tesla Model X and as a backdrop where the crew boards the car outside of NASA's Operations and Checkout building. At Launch Complex 39A, the worm adorns the wall of the gantry level that the astronauts follow to reach their SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft.
Even Behnken and Hurley's SpaceX spacesuits have the worm embroidered front and center on their chests.
"The NASA style guide is very clear: the worm no longer exists. But I write the style guide. So I made a determination for this particular mission: on this particular day, we are going to bring back the worm. And we did," NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said at a prelaunch press briefing this week, as he sat below a projection of the worm logo.
The space agency's original style guide, the NASA Graphics Standards Manual, was written in 1976 by the logo's designers, Bruce Blackburn and Richard Danne.
"I think NASA realizes they have two marks, so to speak, but somehow they can be made to co-exist," said Danne in a recent NASA interview.
Created in 1975, the worm was first launched into space with astronauts on the joint U.S. and Russian Apollo-Soyuz Test Project. It emblazoned the wings of NASA's space shuttle orbiters and was applied to the exterior of the Hubble Space Telescope. Then in 1992, it was unceremoniously retired by the then-head of NASA in favor of restoring the Apollo-era meatball as the agency's sole insignia.
The worm remained dormant for two decades until a new generation embraced it as retro cool.
"When they started producing apparel [with it] a couple of years ago, they found out how young people in particular really liked this program," said Danne. "And so they have allowed it to, kind of, come back to life on its own."
"I'd love to say it was my idea," said Bridenstine, "but I will tell you as the NASA administrator, I've heard from a lot of people that 'you oughta bring back the worm.' I have heard it over and over again."
A member of the post-Apollo generation himself, Bridenstine approved bringing back the worm for SpaceX's Demo-2 mission to draw attention to the importance of the history-making American flight.
"I grew up with the worm as the logo of NASA. It is kind of personal to me," he said. "This is NASA."
To celebrate its return, a new book about the logotype showcases it in use. "The Worm," from the team that republished Danne's and Blackburn's original NASA Graphics Standards Manual in 2015, features more than 300 images from NASA's archives all featuring the logo. The book's final chapter, to be completed before its release in October, will document the worm's return to flight on SpaceX's Demo-2 mission.
"It is a validation, I think, of the sort of timeless approach we brought to this," said Danne, commenting on the worm's resurrection at NASA. "Space is about the future, and if we can still hang in there and if it still represents that, then it is quite a victory, I think."
"Aesthetics aside, the goal was to do, to hold up for decades, and apparently it's got better legs today than it did then," he said.
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