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Emblems of Exploration: Logos of the NACA and NASA

Emblems of Exploration: Logos of the NACA and NASA by Joseph R. Chambers and Mark A. Chambers. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, 2015, 149 pp.

Emblems of Exploration: Logos of the NACA and NASA is a monograph that describes the history of the emblems used by the nation’s air and space exploration agencies. The father and son coauthors have over 73 years of combined experience as technical and historical researchers and writers for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the senior Chambers (Joseph) having earned NASA’s Exceptional Service Medal. The book represents a 20-year project of collaboration between the two, their extensive research having determined the roots and rationale behind some of the most famous government logos in history.

Although Emblems of Exploration is an examination of organizational logos, it provides fascinating insight into the bureaucratic thought behind the organizational history of American civilian air and space exploration. Beginning with the establishment of the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the story runs through the establishment of NASA and the origins of its famous “meatball,” “swoosh,” and “worm” logos. Even though much of this information is deeply esoteric and of most interest to hardcore space history fans, the story of the NACA and NASA emblems is deeply intertwined with the history of aviation, the space race, and the organizational challenges of a storied agency after its greatest triumphs.

The first half of the study describes logos of the NACA, which coordinated American aeronautical research from 1915 to 1958, and directed such famous projects as the first supersonic flight. Interestingly, in the context of this book, the NACA had no standardized logo for its first 25 years of existence, gaining a winged emblem only on the eve of World War II. Aside from historical information on the NACA and its emblems, this section is intriguing for its extensive photography, including excellent pictures of early experimental aircraft in NACA livery, fascinating views of early Langley Field, and images of artifacts like Eddie Rickenbacker’s NACA security badge.

With the beginning of the space race, the NACA grew into NASA, which required a new organizational look and culture to go with a new domain of exploration. The coauthors describe the competition to design NASA’s logo and show images of the unselected design finalists. They also account for the origins of each element of the “meatball” emblem in a perceptive, human way by relating the stories of contributors who felt slighted by the official history. This section includes early medals given to pioneers like Alan Shepard and reveals the public’s harsh critical response to the early NASA emblem.

The “meatball” design flew on all of NASA’s early manned missions, including Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, identifying an organization and its historic achievements. However, in 1974, under the Federal Graphics Improvement Program, NASA’s organizational emblem underwent a redesign and simplification by the same graphic design studio that created the 1976 bicentennial logo. The new logo, a highly stylized red linotype of “NASA” that went so far as to eliminate the crossbars of the “As” became known, somewhat derisively, as the “worm.” This design flew on all NASA aircraft and space missions from 1975 until 1992, including the groundbreaking X-29 forward-swept-wing airplane and the Challenger space shuttle. This portion of Emblems of Exploration boasts excellent color photographs from a fascinating era in aeronautics and the early days of the space shuttle program.

By the early 1990s, NASA was suffering from organizational malaise, and the new administrator saw the return of the “meatball” emblem as a means of signifying continuity with triumphs of the past. In the final part of the book, the authors discuss the return of the original logo, development of the simplified “swoosh” emblem in the 1990s, and uses of the NASA logos on applications from stationery to automotive license plates from 1992 to the present.

Emblems of Exploration: Logos of the NACA and NASA is an authoritative deep dive into an esoteric topic in aviation. It enhances the reader’s understanding of the importance of emblems to the organizational identity of two trailblazing agencies, but the authors never ascribe mission success or failure to a logo. Rather, this is history for its own sake, without agenda or broad thesis. The monograph, with its excellent collection of photographs, should be a terrific reference for historians of early aviation and of the culture of NASA. More casual fans should enjoy this book for its extremely detailed, behind-the-scenes look at an always visible but often-overlooked aspect of American air and space history.

Maj Andrew L. Brown, USAF
Maxwell AFB, Alabama


"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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