We’ve all heard the story. Back in the 1960s, as the Americans and Soviets were competing for space (and global) supremacy, the United States supposedly spent millions to develop a pen that their astronauts could use in space. The Soviets, meanwhile, “just used a pencil.” It’s a classic tale used to criticize government spending and incompetent bureaucracy, and is even used to take a jab at the victors of the Space Race—NASA and the American people. But just how true is this story?
After all, I’ve previously written about the near “blank check” methodology used by the government to fund the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and that’s far from the silliest expenditure one can come up with regarding government spending. In 2015, a government grant provided $1.3 million to two University of Washington students to study how a koozie keeps your drink cold on a hot day. It seems totally possible that, while the scrappy Soviet Union had the wherewithal to use pencils in space, we here under the red, white, and blue decided to toss funds away on another unnecessary program.
But truth is always more complicated than parable.
In the early days of manned space travel, both Americans and Soviets used pencils to fill out paperwork and take notes while in orbit. Pencils, however, weren’t very good to use in the micro-gravity environment of low-Earth orbit. While pencils are erasable (always handy) and don’t contain any liquid that could feasibly leak out into the space capsule, they were plagued by other issues. Wooden shavings proved to be a real problem, as they could float freely inside the capsule and gunk up equipment, get caught in an astronaut’s eye, or get breathed in and irritate an astronaut’s throat. Mechanical pencils were only slightly better, leaving flecks of graphite floating around in the capsule as they were used. It’s worth noting, as well, that space capsules are an oxygen-rich environment, which makes the use of anything flammable, like a wooden pencil, a risky endeavor.