When NASA's new chief, Daniel S. Goldin, decided to replace the space agency's logo last month, he meant to signal a cultural change.

He was not aiming to provoke an interagency flap by replacing a familiar logo, known as "The Worm" -- the word "NASA" in minimalist, tubular type -- with the 1960s-style circular design fondly known as "The Meatball."

But the National Endowment for the Arts thinks the meatball is a turkey.

Mina Wright Berryman, director of NEA's design arts program, lobbed a terse letter to Goldin:

"The worm is not simply a logo, but an integral part of NASA's comprehensive visual standards program. This program was developed by NASA in 1975 following an extensive review of the agency's graphics by a Federal Graphics Improvement Panel convened by the Design Arts Program. The panel of graphic designers found that NASA's graphics did 'not remotely relate to what NASA does' and had no visual unity; they recommended that NASA develop a graphic standards manual. A manual was developed in consultation with the design firm of Danne & Blackburn and through consistent application of its standards over the last 17 years, NASA has produced one of the most successful federal agency visual communications programs.

"In 1984, this program was awarded a Presidential Award for Design Excellence, the highest award in design given by the president. NASA is the only federal agency to date to have received this prestigious honor. . . . Before jeopardizing its entire visual communication program, we recommend that NASA undertake a professional evaluation of the program and of NASA's visual communication needs."

Berryman could not be reached for comment.

Goldin, reputed to be a crusader against bureaucratic tendencies, may not have suspected what he was up against.

In any case, he has been proudly wearing a small meatball in his lapel practically nonstop since coming to the decision, which he said he made at the urging of NASA employees around the country.

Much of the objection to the "worm" is said to be its connection with the shuttle era, which is associated with the 1986 Challenger tragedy and a lack of zest in the space program.

However, some NASA workers want to stick with the worm. "It's a generational thing," said one. "We young people like it."

The meatball features a sweeping "V," possibly meant to represent upward and outward velocity, and a circular sweep, possibly meant to represent an orbiting spacecraft, all tangled up in the phrase "National Aeronautics and Space Administration U.S.A." in old-fashioned type.

This "back to the future" switch, Goldin said, is not merely cosmetic but symbolizes a more substantive change in the way NASA operates, which he hopes will "rekindle the magic" of the can-do Apollo era while at the same time saving money and time.

In announcing the return of the meatball, which served as the NASA insignia from 1959 to 1975, he directed employees not to waste money by throwing out "worm"-infested stationery or repainting "worm"-covered space vehicles. (Converting one space shuttle from "worm" to "meatball" would cost some $400,000, NASA officials said.) Instead, Goldin intends to phase in the meatball as new supplies are purchased.

There is one place where the "worm" is apparently forever. The government agency in charge of moving government agencies has directed NASA to move its headquarters to a new federal building. Goldin spokeswoman Sue M. Richard noted that, on its outside wall, a great worm already is "etched in stone."