What are the stars in the NASA logo?

I have a T-shirt with the NASA logo on it (standard get-up for a space lover), and every time I wear it and catch myself in the mirror, I wonder whether the stars in the background are meant to represent particular constellations. Maybe they’re just a random scattering of stars, but the people at NASA are pretty clever – there must be more to it than that!

So, I’ve done some research and here’s what I’ve found.


NASA logo: the basics

First, there’s more to the NASA logo than the background stars. Here’s what it looks like in all its glory…

what are the stars in the nasa logo meatball insignia
NASA’s ‘meatball’ logo

This logo has been in use since 1959, and it is affectionately known as the ‘meatball’… because it is round. (This name wasn’t actually coined until 1975, when NASA adopted a new logo, which was just a stylised version of the word ‘NASA’ in red letters. That one became known as the ‘worm’ and was retired in 1992. The round logo we know and love has stayed in service.)

In the meatball, we get the word ‘NASA’ in white lettering, a white circle representing an orbital path, and a red airfoil shape that symbolises aeronautics. This logo was designed by James Modarelli, the head of Reports Division at Lewis Research Center. He based the red airfoil shape on the wing of a real supersonic plane!

A model of the supersonic wing which Modarelli turned into the red shape in the NASA logo.


NASA logo: the stars

So, what about those stars? It’s actually really difficult to find any hard information about whether they’re supposed to represent particular constellations, and I couldn’t find anything official on the NASA website about them. But I’m not the first person to wonder about this, and I did find some people discussing their theories on forums. (Of course, if the stars on the logo are meant to represent particular constellations, they’re highly stylised versions and they’re certainly not drawn to scale!)

First, the tight line of three stars at the top of the logo could well be Orion’s belt, which could make the bright star underneath it Rigel. This is one of the most distinctive set of stars to spot in the northern hemisphere with the naked eye (it’s the first ‘constellation’ I ever learned!), but Orion’s belt is only one part of the whole constellation of Orion, the Hunter. If that is what it’s meant to be, quite a lot of the constellation is missing.

Next, (parts of) the constellation Cygnus, the Swan, could appear in the bottom left. It’s not very clear at all, but I suppose there are five or six stars there that could form the wings of the swan, if you squint!

Some of the forum users suggested that the bottom right could be Draco, the Dragon, which has a sort of S-shape that you might just be able to pick out in the logo.

I also wondered whether the stars at the top that form a big sweeping curve could be part of the Big Dipper (the ‘handle’ of the dipper, perhaps), or even a really squished Cassiopeia (which is shaped like a ‘W’).


In conclusion

With so little information about the stars in the logo from NASA itself, it’s probably safe to assume that they aren’t really meant to portray any particular constellations. Or perhaps, like the red airfoil shape inspired by the real wing, the stars in the logo have been so far removed from the originals by artistic license that there’s no longer any point in trying to identify what they used to be.

And that’s OK – the NASA logo isn’t meant to be an accurate star map. It’s a simplified, symbolic insignia designed to reflect ideas of innovation and exploration, and I think it does that job rather nicely.

Image sources:
Logo, National Aeronautics and Space Administration [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Other sources:

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