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Sci-Tech

Own a historic NASA manual featuring 'the worm'

It won't teach you how to build a rocket or fly to Pluto, but this manual is a fascinating part of NASA's history, and it's seeking funding on Kickstarter now.

Originally in a ring-binder, the reissue of the style manual will be in a hardcover book.

Michael Gericke

In 1974, designers Richard Danne and Bruce Blackburn did something that would have a major impact on NASA. They didn't introduce new rocket technology or propose a new material for spacesuits. Nor did they figure out a way to grow lettuce in space or create a helicopter than can fly like a plane. They introduced a new logo that came to be known as "the worm," and a set of style guidelines that would change the public face of the famous space agency for years to come.

Now, self-described "design nerds" Jesse Reed and Hamish Smyth have launched a Kickstarter campaign to bring back Danne and Blackburn's Graphics Standards Manual and make it available to the public. Although the original manual -- which was released in 1975 and discontinued in 1992 -- was put out as a looseleaf binder, Reed and Smyth's reproduction will be a hardcover book. You can preview the book in the gallery below.

The manual is definitely something for hard-core space buffs and lovers of graphic design, rather than a casual read for anyone interested in space exploration generally. It consists of lots of drawings and instructions on how to place type on things like planes, cars, arm patches and stationery.

What makes it a particularly interesting piece of history is that -- according to an article about the reissue in Wired -- in May 1992, NASA's new administrator, Dan Goldin, switched the agency back to using the previous logo, which was nicknamed "the meatball." (It's the logo NASA is still using today, with the blue circle with a red swoop through it.) According to Wired, Goldin made the change in an effort to boost morale, as there were plenty of company employees who never quite took to the worm.

So after 17 years in use, Danne and Blackburn's Graphics Standards Manual was tossed out, despite the fact that many, like design critic Alice Rawsthorn, felt the worm was a more elegant encapsulation of all that NASA stood for, as opposed to the more clunky meatball logo.

"If the meatball shows us what made NASA so thrilling -- rockets, planets and sexy-sounding hypersonic stuff -- the worm simply suggests it, and does so with such skill that it's become the design purists' favorite," Rawsthorn says in a New York Times article. "Everything about the worm is seductively new, optimistic and futuristic, declaring that NASA is leading us toward a brighter, bolder future," she adds. "The message is so clear that it doesn't need to be explained by words or pictures."

Reed and Smyth clearly agree with that assessment, and the major driving force behind their project is preserving the manual and the worm logo itself. "As design nerds, we think the worm is almost perfect, and the system behind it is a wonderful example of modernist design and thinking," they say on their Kickstarter page. "Where the meatball feels cartoon-like and old fashioned; the worm feels sleek, futuristic, forward-thinking. All good things for a space agency at the bleeding-edge of science and exploration."

Reed and Smyth are no strangers to preserving design manuals. Previously, they ran a successful campaign on Kickstarter to bring back the New York City Transit Authority's 1970 Graphics Standards Manual, so their likelihood of success with the NASA project is high. Adding to that is the fact that they've already well exceeded their $158,000 goal with 33 days to go in the campaign. Plus, Richard Danne himself confirmed to CNET that Reed and Smyth have his full permission and cooperation to go forward with the project.

"It was crushing when the program was rescinded in 1992, yet it refuses to go away," Danne told CNET's Crave blog. "Every couple of weeks I field an inquiry from yet another publisher, writer, critic, or graduate design student requesting visual and editorial material about the NASA story. Most of these are from Europe or Asia -- today it's two young professionals in Paris, last week a German grad student.

"I never dwell on the loss of the program, rather I revel in the interest of an international community which continues to support us," he added.

If you want to lend your support, you can grab yourself a copy of the manual for $79 (about £50, AU$115). Delivery is estimated in March 2016. The book will not be available after the Kickstarter campaign ends on October 5.