The Debunker: Did NASA Really Spend Millions to Develop a "Space Pen"?

by Ken Jennings

 

As NASA’s lovable li’l Curiosity rover continues to inch across the red planet’s dusty Gale Crater, America’s interest in space exploration inches upward as well, probably hitting its highest point (its “zenith,” an astronomer might say) in thirty years or so. And what month could be better than February to consider the mysteries of the cosmos? The shortest month is full of memorable anniversaries in space history, from the birth of Copernicus (February 19, 1473) to the discovery of Pluto (February 18, 1930) to John Glenn’s historic first orbit of the Earth (February 20, 1962). Jeopardy!’s Ken Jennings is a bit of space nerd himself, and this month he’ll be navigating us through an asteroid belt of misconceptions about the exploration of the cosmos. Even if you’re not one of the 6 percent of Americans who believes that the moon landing was a hoax, you might have been fleeced by one or more of these fallacies about the final frontier.

Space Myth #1: NASA Spent Millions to Develop a “Space Pen.”

In the common version of this myth, widely spread by Internet factoid-purveyors and even some newspapers, Apollo-era NASA needed a writing instrument that will work in space. Ballpoint pens, however, require gravity, as anyone who has ever tried to write a Post-It note on a vertical door or window well knows. So more than a million dollars was poured into developing a zero-g ballpoint pen. The result was successful—but the Russians were equally successful by (wait for it) just bringing along a pencil. Cue muted-trumpet “Wah wah!” sound.

The anecdote is usually used as a heartwarming example of common sense triumphing over technology, not as an argument against expensive government boondoggles or as a demonstration of Soviet geopolitical superiority. But in any case, it’s not particularly accurate. Astronauts and cosmonauts both used pencils in the early days of space travel, but the mechanical pencils chosen by NASA (wooden pencils were deemed too flammable after the tragedy of Apollo 1) ended up costing almost $130 each, and didn’t work out well in practice. Any time the lead broke, bits of graphite would fly around the cabin, potentially floating into bodily orifices and/or short-circuiting equipment. With this in mind, an American inventor named Paul Fisher spent more than a million dollars of his own money developing a space-friendly ballpoint, which he patented in 1965. A few years later, both the Americans and the Soviets were using the Fisher pen in orbit—and both paid not millions, but $2.39 each for the privilege. (They got a good deal by buying in bulk.)

Fisher’s pens are still for sale everywhere that slightly-geeky, upscale gift items are sold, and they still write perfectly well in zero-gravity, underwater, or in freezing cold or boiling heat, if you tend to jot down a lot of shopping lists under those conditions. The pens got a boost in publicity in 1969 when word got around that Buzz Aldrin had used the pen to jury-rig a broken circuit breaker and allow the Eagle lunar capsule to return to Earth. The story is mostly true…except that Aldrin later revealed he didn’t use Fisher’s pen to make the repair. When the chips were down, it was a regular old felt-tip marker that got the call, not the million-dollar Space Pen.

Quick Quiz: “The pen is mightier than the sword” was coined in an 1839 play by writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton. Bulwer-Lytton’s 1830 novel Paul Clifford is best known because it begins with what now-immortal opening line??

Ken Jennings is the author of Because I Said So!, Brainiac, Ken Jennings's Trivia Almanac, and Maphead. He's also the proud owner of an underwhelming Bag o' Crap. Follow him at ken-jennings.com or on Twitter as @KenJennings.

Photo by Flickr member zappowbang. Used under a Creative Commons License.