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.
Regular pens couldn’t work in orbit because they were designed down here on Earth where gravity provides a consistent force to drive the ink out of the pen and onto the page. Pens don’t work upside down for the same reason they won’t work in orbit: The ink simply stays put in the body of the pen without a force pushing it outward.
Enter Paul C. Fisher. Fisher wasn’t an astronaut, nor was he a government scientist or bureaucrat. Fisher owned the Fisher Pen Company, which invested over a million dollars into the development of a pen that would work regardless of gravity’s presence. Neither NASA, nor the government at large, provided any of the seed funding. Fisher had designed the pen to be used in all kinds of hazardous environments, including extreme cold or heat, but he hadn’t initially had space in mind. He simply wanted to create something people could use if their work prevented them from writing in the traditional, pen-pointed-down method.
NASA was hesitant initially, but after extensive testing, they opted to adopt the Fisher Space Pen as their primary writing utensil for all further missions. They placed a bulk order and paid a price of $2.39 per pen.
The pen used a replaceable pressurized ink cartridge to force the ink out of the tip regardless of gravitational pull, and testing showed that these pens proved extremely reliable in all sorts of circumstances and conditions. The ink was kept from pouring out of the pen by adding a small amount of resin to change its viscosity. The pens proved so effective, in fact, the Soviet Union also placed a bulk order with the Fisher Pen Company for his patented space pens, paying the exact same price per pen as their U.S competition.
So, while the old story may paint the Soviet Union as the savvier party in the Space Race, the truth of the matter was, good old fashioned American capitalism not only won the race, it also gave the cosmonauts the pens they used to write their reports about it.
Maybe that means we could still be in store for a koozie breakthrough, too.