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NASA’s “Meatball” Logo

Painting of the NASA logo on the 525-foot-tall Vehicle Assembly Building.
Painting of the NASA logo, also called the meatball, on the 525-foot-tall Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at the agency’s Kennedy Space Center on June 23, 2020.
Credits: NASA/Ben Smegelsky

Bringing back memories of NASA’s early successes, this logo dates back to 1959, when the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA) metamorphosed into an agency that would advance both space and aeronautics: the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). After a NASA Lewis (now Glenn) Research Center illustrator’s design was chosen for the new agency’s official seal, the head of Lewis’ Research Reports Division, James Modarelli, was asked by the executive secretary of NACA to design a logo that could be used for less formal purposes. Mr. Modarelli simplified the seal, leaving only the white stars and orbital path on a round field of blue with a red airfoil. Then he added white N-A-S-A lettering.

In 1949, after graduating from the Cleveland Institute of Art, James “Jim” Modarelli began his career as an artist-designer at the laboratory that would become the NASA Glenn Research Center. When the NACA was approved to be absorbed into the new space agency—NASA, employees were invited to submit designs for the Agency’s logo. Modarelli, who was serving as the Management Services Division Chief at the time, submitted the winning designs. The official NASA seal and the less formal NASA “meatball” insignia (shown here) are among the most recognized emblems in the world. The logos, which include symbols representing the space and aeronautics missions of NASA, became official in 1959. In July 1958, Modarelli participated in a tour at the Ames Unitary Plan Wind Tunnel, where he viewed a model of a radical supersonic airplane designed for flight at Mach 3.0. With a cambered, twisted arrow wing and an upturned nose, the model deeply impressed Modarelli. He later stylized the radical features of the arrow-wing configuration in his evolution of the NASA seal design; the wing would also become an element of the NASA insignia.

In the “meatball” design, the sphere represents a planet, the stars represent space, the red chevron is a wing representing aeronautics (the latest design in hypersonic wings at the time the logo was developed), and then there is an orbiting spacecraft going around the wing.

Known officially as the insignia, NASA’s round logo was not called the “meatball” until 1975, when NASA decided a more modern logo was in order and switched to the “worm”—a red, stylized rendering of the letters N-A-S-A.

Space Shuttle Approach and Landing Tests (ALT)
The Space Shuttle prototype Enterprise rides smoothly atop NASA’s first Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA), NASA 905.

The use of “meatball” for “any combination of raw or cooked meat shaped into balls” dates back much farther, at least to 1838 (the Oxford English Dictionary’s oldest citation). An 1877 recipe used mutton and veal necks, but variously seasoned meatballs had been known by other names in other cultures. There were spicy Greek keftedes containing minced veal, onions, herbs, and breadcrumbs; olde English pome-dorries (dating back to at least A.D. 1381) made of beef and egg yolks or pork liver and flour; and the much loved Italian and Swedish meatballs (whose ethnic names I could not find in time for this article). “Meatball” has also been used for a dull, unattractive person and for a penant for battle efficiency or an athletic scholarship.

The use of “meatball” in aeronautics also predates NASA’s round insignia, but not by much. In 1957, the U.S. Navy referred to a “meatball of light” in its procedure for landing aircraft on aircraft carriers: “The mirror reflects a bright light astern and upward into a beam which the pilot follows straight to a landing by keeping the “meatball” of light precisely centred in the mirror.”1 This eventually became known as the meatball landing system.

In 1992, then-Administrator Dan Goldin brought NASA’s meatball back from retirement to invoke memories of the one-giant-leap-for-mankind glory days of Apollo and to show that “the magic is back at NASA.”

For more information, please see Joseph R. Chambers and Mark A. Chambers’ Emblems of Exploration: Logos of the NACA and NASA, Monographs in Aerospace History, No. 56, 2015. (NASA SP-2015-4556)

The Economist. vol. 688, no. 2, Aug. 31, 1957.