Astronaut-Pen

You Know That Joke, America Spends Millions on a Space Pen & Russia Used a Pencil? It’s False


So the “joke” goes like this:

When NASA first started sending astronauts into space, they realised that the ball-point pen wouldn’t work in zero gravity.

A million dollar investment and two years of tests resulted in a pen that could write in space, upside down, on almost any surface and at temperatures ranging from below freezing to over 300 degrees Celsius.

When confronted with the same problem, the Russians used a pencil.

It’s a brilliant summary of bureaucracy and failing to see simple solutions to problems by needlessly complicating them. It has a simple punch and is believable and has a certain air of authority as it mentions details such as what temperature it can write at.

Now let’s pick this apart.

During the first NASA missions, the astronauts used pencils. Then for Project Gemini they ordered mechanical pencils that cost a ridiculous $128 per pencil (in todays money that would be the equivalent of about US$1,000). The public got up in arms about the frivolous expense and NASA backtracked on that.

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But the problem was, you couldn’t just go using regular pencils, the lead is highly conductive, and as you write with it the lead flakes off and floats around. All it would take is for some lead to float into a delicate system and you could have a fire on your hands. After the disaster of Apollo 1, NASA wasn’t going to have any fire risks onboard.

Around this time Paul C. Fisher of the Fisher Pen Co. designed a ballpoint pen that was space ready, due to a pressurised ink cartridge. Mr Fisher dropped an estimated $1 million of his companies own funds into designing the pen, and consequently offered them to NASA for $6 a unit (NASA bought 400 of them). These pens were used in Project Apollo. Will that bulk order doesn’t exactly cover the expense of designing the product, Fisher Pen Co. patented the product, and instantly cornered the market.

The Soviet Union soon came shopping for the pens, picking up 100 of them with 1,000 ink cartridges for use in February 1969 during the Soyuz space flights. Before this they had been using grease pencils.

Both American astronauts and Soviet/Russian cosmonauts have continued to use these pens, and you can buy them yourself if you felt so inclined. They work in just about every condition, including underwater (and over 300 degrees).

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