WootBot


quality posts: 14 Private Messages WootBot

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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.

jbrief


quality posts: 2 Private Messages jbrief

I can easily debunk one part of your article...

"The discovery of Pluto (February 18, 1830)"

Almost correct, but off by a century.

Woody1150


quality posts: 7 Private Messages Woody1150

I have one of these. It was a "reward" for a project I worked on. They are actually pretty cool little pens. I think the only one of the odd conditions I've used it in was to write something underwater.

Moueska


quality posts: 53 Private Messages Moueska

"It was a dark, and stormy night."

;)

DoctorDevice


quality posts: 0 Private Messages DoctorDevice

“It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents — except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.”

where would modern literature be, if not for Edward Bullwer-Lytton?

dugjohnson


quality posts: 2 Private Messages dugjohnson

I have several of these. I originally only had the little bullet jobber that only becomes useful when you uncap it and put the cap on the body, but the cap falls off...and so on.
Found more online and bought regular pen bodies with the Fischer insert. Why?
Crossword puzzles on Sunday lying on the couch. Ballpoints have to be held vertically while figuring out the answer. The Fischer pen is ready and willing to put my wrong answer in anytime I'm ready to commit.

jcolag


quality posts: 8 Private Messages jcolag

I have multiple Space Pens around the house, just in case. By far, the most important feature is that the ink doesn't dry out for a long time, so they all still work even after years of neglect.

I mostly use pencil, though, from bad experiences in chemistry labs over the years. The Space Pen ink probably doesn't run, for all the people who have underwater writing stories, but it still trained me to work in pencil where possible.

People also don't borrow pencils.

Related to the question, I was on a Bulwer-Lytton kick for a few months, and read a shocking (for today) amount of his material. Great ideas and even plots, but oh, it's like it was all written by junior high school kids who want to sound "smart."

If I had to read about one more person quitting the room (or any of a dozen other snooty idioms), I would've had to divert the lifeblood from someone's corporeal being.

trackzero


quality posts: 4 Private Messages trackzero

My favorite part of this article? I can link it with the description:

"The space pen is a myth"

and at a quick glance (with the right font), it looks like "space penis."

slothful1


quality posts: 1 Private Messages slothful1

It kind of suprises me that a ballpoint needs gravity to work at all. Ballpoint ink is pretty viscous in my experience (almost like a paste) and I would think that capillary action would do most of the work.

alexmg2420


quality posts: 5 Private Messages alexmg2420

Came here hoping you had Space Pens listed at a discounted price. I keep losing mine and was gonna order 3!

rwuest


quality posts: 0 Private Messages rwuest

Space pens have another fine feature that makes me favor them over any other ballpoint pen: put one in a drawer or cup on the desk or in your glove box and wait a year or two. Now pull it out and try to write with it. Guess what? It works!

PWootster1109


quality posts: 1 Private Messages PWootster1109

Fisher Spacepens are awesome. I have a few bullet style pens already and use them everyday.
If Woot sold Fisher Bullet style space pens and/ or Spacepen ink refills, I'd stock-up on refills for sure.
And maybe another pen. Don't have the Trekker model yet.