Fact or Fiction?: NASA Spent Millions to Develop a Pen that Would Write in Space, whereas the Soviet Cosmonauts Used a Pencil
The problem of weightless writing was not solved by either Soviet central planning or good old American sub-contracting, but by a private investor and a good idea
- By Ciara Curtin on December 20, 2006
During the height of the space race in the 1960s, legend has it, NASA scientists realized that pens could not function in space. They needed to figure out another way for the astronauts to write things down. So they spent years and millions of taxpayer dollars to develop a pen that could put ink to paper without gravity. But their crafty Soviet counterparts, so the story goes, simply handed their cosmonauts pencils.
This tale with its message of simplicity and thrift–not to mention a failure of common sense in a bureaucracy–floats around the Internet, hopping from in-box to in-box, and even surfaced during a 2002 episode of the West Wing. But, alas, it is just a myth.
Originally, NASA astronauts, like the Soviet cosmonauts, used pencils, according to NASA historians. In fact, NASA ordered 34 mechanical pencils from Houston’s Tycam Engineering Manufacturing, Inc., in 1965. They paid $4,382.50 or $128.89 per pencil. When these prices became public, there was an outcry and NASA scrambled to find something cheaper for the astronauts to use.
Pencils may not have been the best choice anyway. The tips flaked and broke off, drifting in microgravity where they could potentially harm an astronaut or equipment. And pencils are flammable–a quality NASA wanted to avoid in onboard objects after the Apollo 1 fire.
Paul C. Fisher and his company, the Fisher Pen Company, reportedly invested $1 million to create what is now commonly known as the space pen. None of this investment money came from NASA’s coffers–the agency only became involved after the pen was dreamed into existence…
According to an Associated Press report from February 1968, NASA ordered 400 of Fisher’s antigravity ballpoint pens for the Apollo program. A year later, the Soviet Union ordered 100 pens and 1,000 ink cartridges to use on their Soyuz space missions, said the United Press International. The AP later noted that both NASA and the Soviet space agency received the same 40 percent discount for buying their pens in bulk. They both paid $2.39 per pen instead of $3.98.
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- NASA Spent Millions on a Pen Able to Write in Space