Is the ‘worm’ going to Mars?

It was on screen for just a second. But there it was in red on white. During the coverage of space tourist Dennis Tito’s announcement to take a ship to Mars and back, the above graphic leapt out at me. Could the NASA ‘worm’ be coming back into service?

It was on screen for just a second. But there it was in red on white. During the coverage of space tourist Dennis Tito’s announcement to take a ship to Mars and back, the above graphic leapt out at me. Could the NASA ‘worm’ be coming back into service?

I’m a big fan of NASA’s ex-logotype (I would stitch it onto my pyjamas if I could), so I was more than a little excited to see this pumpkin-like rendered space craft bearing a reworking of the 1970s classic in the middle of Tito’s Inspiration Mars presentation.

While it said “MARS” not “NASA” that meant, on the plus side, two new letterforms! But while the “M” looked spot on, the “R”, well, I wasn’t entirely convinced by that tail (shouldn’t it link with the “S”? Too much?).

So I emailed Richard Danne who was design director of the NASA program in 1975. His partner Bruce Blackburn, at Danne & Blackburn, designed the logo (which incidentally came high in our April 2011 issue on the top 20 logos of all time, and will feature in a forthcoming expanded book version). Danne said he hadn’t seen the new Mars logotype, but found it “quite fascinating”.

He added that many other companies had been inspired by the logo after it was introduced in the mid-70s, such as the car manufacturer, Saturn. “Considering everything, this is about as good a ‘lift’ as I’ve seen,” he says of the Mars iteration. “And if ‘imitation is the most sincere form of flattery’ then this is well done and OK!”

I think he’s right, it does look great – just as the original NASA worm did in the late 70s and throughout the 80s, having replaced the ‘meatball‘ of 1959, you know, that “amateurish mess” (Michael Bierut) that was reawakened by NASA administrator Dan Goldin in 1992. The purpose of the worm in the first place was to give people something that looked like it belonged in the future.

And herein lies my worry. Tito’s mission may well be a billionaire-funded private enterprise; but it’s not a NASA operation, so the agency may have grounds to object to a spin-off of its design glories of the past.

We shall see if the space tourist’s plans work out and, indeed, if he is even able to use the logotype on his Mars mission. There are hints at potential involvement from the space agency on the Inspiration Mars website. If true, I’ll certainly be watching from 2018 onwards to see if the worm can make it out of the Earth’s atmosphere once again.

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The March issue of CR magazine celebrates 150 years of the London Underground. In it we introduce a new book by Mark Ovenden, which is the first study of all aspects of the tube’s design evolution; we ask Harry Beck authority, Ken Garland, what he makes of a new tube map concept by Mark Noad; we investigate the enduring appeal of Edward Johnston’s eponymous typeface; Michael Evamy reports on the design story of world-famous roundel; we look at the London Transport Museum’s new exhibition of 150 key posters from its archive; we explore the rich history of platform art, and also the Underground’s communications and advertising, past and present. Plus, we talk to London Transport Museum’s head of trading about TfL’s approach to brand licensing and merchandising. In Crit, Rick Poynor reviews Branding Terror, a book about terrorist logos, while Paul Belford looks at how a 1980 ad managed to do away with everything bar a product demo. Finally, Daniel Benneworth-Grey reflects on the merits on working home alone. Buy your copy here.

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