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Wings, Meatballs, Worms, and Swooshes
July 15, 2013

One evening, retired NASA engineer Joe Chambers was asked by his wife to look over some historical material he'd kept over the years. When sifting through folders, he saw one labeled “NASA Insignias."

It was a folder his son had put together as a LARSS (Langley Aerospace Student Scholars) student in external affairs. Chambers realized “there was a long path yet to be told of the NASA insignia.” Since then, Chambers has been giving a presentation called “Wings, Meatballs, Worms, and Swooshes: The Unknown Story of the NASA Seal and Insignia.”


Chambers gave that presentation July 9 at the Colloquium at NASA's Langley Research Center.

Most recognize the iconic NASA meatball insignia, but many are unaware of the trials and tribulations of designing one of the world’s best-known logos.

According to Chambers, the story of the beloved NASA meatball began in 1920 with NASA's predecessor, NACA (National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics). NACA's early flight test aircraft logo showed a NACA shield, usually with a number to designate the fleet. Designers added wings to the logo in 1941.

Then the tables turned. James Modarelli, a chief graphic designer with NACA, took a trip that involved stops at NACA Ames and NACA Langley. At the time, NACA Ames was working on the optimization of arrow wing dynamics and Langley was working on theoretical studies and applications of the arrow wing.

While at NACA Ames, Modarelli was fascinated by the high-speed aerodynamics display, which featured a red wing model on a pedestal. The wing-tipped model was the symbol of aerodynamics, a design that NACA Ames engineers Elliot Katzen and R.T. Jones conceived. However, at NACA Langley, aerodynamics engineer Clinton E. Brown was working on an arrow-head model of his own.

“In my opinion, based on what I’ve researched, I think that Modarelli visited both places and when he came to Langley and saw what Brown was up to, I am convinced he used that wing as his model for the insignia,” Chambers said.

The original NASA insignia submittal to the Army was Jan. 23, 1959; however, there was a problem. Photographers had taken the photo of the wing in Brown’s office and a few weeks later when Brown saw the logo he said, “The Army picked the insignia and they’ve got my wing in it, but they drew the damned wing upside down!”

When NASA headquarters realized this, they immediately called the Army and fixed the incorrect design. The wing was redrawn in the upright position and tilted over to the side, in the same position as it is featured on the NASA meatball today.


NASA Administrator T. Keith Glennan signed off on the new NASA logo in 1959, with final approval from President Eisenhower. But with every design, there lies criticism. Critics from the Commission of the Fine Arts believed the logo had limited structural possibilities, and as Chambers said, Time Magazine reported that it “looked like something that came from a Cracker Jack box.” The blue color scheme was very difficult to reproduce on printers at the time as well.

“In 1975, President Nixon initiated the Federal Graphic Improvement Program, which took all agencies and improved their insignias and logos,” Chambers said.

The NASA worm insignia was developed as part of that program. NASA administrators James C. Fletcher and George Low accepted the new design — with resistance. “You either loved the worm it or hated it,” Chambers said.

In 1993, the swoosh, a simplified version of the NASA insignia, was produced. NASA had to maintain and repair aircraft and needed something simple.

“The worm had gone away and the question was what to put on this aircraft,” Chambers said.

After the design of the swoosh, the treasured NASA meatball came back into the picture.

The new meatball logo was designed and presented in 1997. Modarelli was the first person to sign the logo — “an opportunity to sign his legacy,” Chambers said. James Modarelli also received an award for lasting contributions to the beloved NASA meatball.

Near the end of his talk, Chambers joked about the future of the NASA insignia.

 “We’re already out in the 2160 time frame," he said, showing a slide of the "Star Trek" insignia. "You can see that Star Trek has already laid it out for us, somewhat like the NASA meatball.” 

Though we may not be seeing the NASA meatball in the shape of a Star Trek insignia anytime soon, we do know that the NASA meatball will be sticking around for years to come. 


View the full lecture on YouTube at:



MaryAnn Jackson

Langley Aerospace Research Student Scholars

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Joe Chambers.
Joe Chambers presented, "Wings, Meatballs, Worms, and Swooshes: The Unknown Story of the NASA Seal and Insignia" at the July Colloquium at NASA's Langley Research Center.
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NASA/Dave Bowman
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NASA meatball.
As Chambers explained in his July Colloquium talk, the new meatball logo was designed and presented in 1997.
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Page Last Updated: July 28th, 2013
Page Editor: Denise Lineberry