“In the 1960’s NASA spent many years and millions of taxpayer dollars developing a special ‘space pen’ that uses nitrogen-pressurized ink cartridges to work in zero gravity, in a vacuum and at extreme temperatures ranging from -50 F to +400 F.
“The Russians used a pencil.”
This story keeps cropping up as an example of bureaucratic waste, or specifically as an example of what a colossal waste of money the space programme has been. It has been circulating the internet as fact since the mid ’90s, and even fictional White House Chief of Staff Leo McGarry made the claim in a 2002 episode of the West Wing.
This Million Dollar Space Pen story is a pure fabrication however. The space pen was developed not by NASA, but by businessman Paul C. Fisher. It was only adopted by NASA after years of testing and the costs of developing the pen were never passed on to the US government. Furthermore, detritus from wooden pencils presented a potential hazard in microgravity, and Soviet Union would later adopt the Fisher space pen also.
The Soviets and Americans did originally use wooden pencils
The Soviets and Americans did originally use wooden pencils, but there were always concerns that particles of wood and graphite floating in the atmosphere of the spacecraft would cause problems — especially as graphite conducts electricity and could find its way into the circuitry. Wood is also flammable, a detail NASA was very concerned with after the Apollo 1 tragedy.
NASA did get into some trouble over excessive spending when in 1965 it ordered 34 mechanical pencils from Tycam Engineering Manufacturing, Inc for Project Gemini at a total cost of $4,382.50 ($128.89 per pencil). They quickly backtracked and found a cheaper alternative.
The Soviets used grease pencils on plastic slates as an early substitute for wooden pencils. Ballpoint and felt-tip pens have also been successfully used in space.
The Space Pen was invented by Paul C. Fisher and his Fisher Pen Company.
The AG-7 “Anti-Gravity” Space Pen was patented in 1965 and offered to NASA, who were originally hesitant to use it because of the earlier mechanical pencil controversy. Eventually though, after two years of intensive testing, approximately 400 pens were purchased by NASA for Project Apollo. NASA called it the “Data Recording Pen”.
The Soviet Union also purchased 100 space pens in February 1969, for use on its Soyuz flights.
However, even these details don’t tell the full story. As late as 1967 Fisher was trying to get the official NASA stamp of approval on his product, without success.
Both the Russians and the Americans continue to use these pens in space, and the Fisher Space Pen Co. continues to sell and market them as the writing instrument that went to the Moon.
- NASA: The Fisher Space Pen – history.nasa.gov
- The billion-dollar space pen – thespacereview.com
- Fact or Fiction?: NASA Spent Millions to Develop a Pen that Would Write in Space, whereas the Soviet Cosmonauts Used a Pencil – scientificamerican.com
- Snopes: The Write Stuff
- Fisher Space Pen – spacepen.com — History
- Wikipedia: Writing in space and Space Pen
- Fisher Space pen – thewritersedge.com
- spinoff.nasa.gov — things NASA did invent.