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NASA Doesn't Benefit From Your Cute Meatball Tee

The agency often works with fashion companies to help them license the logo.

Photo: Christian Vierig/Getty Images

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Although in recent years, the government has seemed less invested in sending men and women into space, the desire to dress like an astronaut is on the rise. Thanks to films such as Hidden Figures and The Martian, combined with a return of ’70s-inflected fashion, NASA-inspired clothing is popping up all over. Coach’s Space collection is the latest in a growing trend of fashion designers’ creation of NASA-inspired items from flight jackets to T-shirts to yes, fancy purses. Like Topshop and Urban Outfitters before them, Coach incorporates the official logos of NASA into their collection while adding some original designs of their own, including Space Rexy, a whimsical Tyrannosaurus rex sporting a space helmet and jetpack.

All spaced out. #CoachSpace #regram

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But how do fashion brands get permission to use the NASA logos? Unlike other collaborations, there is no licensing process or licensing fee to be paid, since NASA is a government agency. No share of profits makes its way to NASA.

But that’s not to say that anyone can use the NASA logo whenever they please. In order to obtain permission to use the logo, a company must submit designs to the Multimedia Division of NASA's Office of Communications at NASA Headquarters in Washington, where Bert Ulrich, multimedia liaison, reviews them. The regulations for advertising requests are strict, but Ulrich willingly works with companies in order to have their requests improved. “I work a lot with our legal office,” Ulrich says, “and as a government entity, we don’t license out, but we have authority to approve designs because of the code of federal regulations.”

So what happens if someone uses the logo without permission? Ulrich says, “I’ll send on to the legal department for a cease and desist letter. These are sent out from time to time, but usually we just ask the company to make their use permissible.”

There are two licensed logos, known colloquially as “The Meatball” and “The Worm.” The first, the Meatball, dates back to 1959 and was the first official insignia of the agency. Designer James Modarelli designed the seal, which includes white stars, an orbital path on a round field of blue, a red chevron meant to represent wings, and then the NASA lettering. But in 1974, then-President Richard Nixon decided that along with symbols of other government agencies, the NASA logo needed a makeover, and New York ad agency Danne & Blackburn was commissioned to design a new logo, which is how the Worm was born.

The Worm design reflects the aesthetic of the time. A simple line design, with no crossbars on the As, transmitted a futuristic feel. In turn, the Meatball was dismissed as being antiquated. Danne & Blackburn labored to help NASA incorporate and embrace the new logo, but by 1992, the Worm was set aside and replaced by the beloved Meatball yet again.

Until last year, the Meatball was the only licensed insignia of NASA, but, perhaps inspired by the nostalgia of a 1970s throwback, Vivienne Tam and Coach requested permission to use the Worm in their fashion designs. Ulrich brought the requests to the legal department, who authorized the Worm’s use for these collections. “We didn’t want to give carte blanche, though,” Ulrich says, “So we went back to the same standards of use for the Worm from the ’70s and ’80s as a nod to the designers.”

According to Ulrich, there has been a surge in the past year of usage requests for both logos. “Social media has propelled us forward in a way I’ve never seen before,” he says. “Hollywood films like Interstellar, Gravity, Hidden Figures, The Martian... these have caused a lot of interest in space.” While his office received maybe three or four requests a month in the past, Ulrich says he now gets a request a day or every other day.

Since there is no possibility of exclusivity with use of a government logo such as NASA’s, countless companies, many of them apparel makers, use NASA images on their merchandise. Although the logo and images have always been available for public use, in 1984, designer Stephen Sprouse was the first to seek permission to do so, creating fabrics that mingled NASA’s space images with graffiti lettering spelling the planet’s names backwards. According to his colleagues, Sprouse was enamored with space and continued to incorporate these themes in his later collections.

I'm a @nasa girl at heart ☄ #nasa #nasafan #nasagirl #nasatshirt #ootd #cutoffs #instagood #bluejeanswhiteshirt

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Like Stephen Sprouse before them, Coach’s design team found inspiration in NASA and outer space. According to creative director Stuart Vevers, “The collection is very nostalgic.” Coach’s Space Collection ranges in price from a $35 Space Hangtag up to the Shearling Lumber Jacket, most certainly a throwback to the glory days of space exploration, which is adorned with a Space Rexy zipper charm. In between, space enthusiasts can find pins, charms, wallets, bags, and a variety of apparel options adorned with both the official NASA logos as well as Coach’s own space-inspired designs.

In addition to looking back toward the past, Vevers says that the theme drives us forward. “There’s something about the time of the space program that just gives this feeling of possibility,” he says. “The space references, rockets, and planets are symbolic of a moment of ultimate American optimism and togetherness.”

As a government agency, NASA has no interest in offering free publicity for the vast number of clothing companies that have used their images and logos, but Ulrich recalls granting permission to a number of companies, including Target, Forever 21, Old Navy, Nike, and Walmart, in addition to the aforementioned Stephen Sprouse, Vivienne Tam, Coach, Topshop, and Urban Outfitters. “Since we don’t do exclusive or special arrangements, after a manufacturer gets the okay, you might see the merchandise in various stores,” Ulrich says.

Is there anything NASA would turn down? According to official guidelines, “NASA has a long standing policy of not collaborating with promotions related to alcohol or tobacco products.” Other than that, Ulrich says, “We are not allowed to set price limits. If a product were really inappropriate, like skimpy underwear, we’d probably say no, but that’s more of a policy than a legal issue.”