NASA’s Million Dollar Space Pen vs The Soviet Pencils


The story of NASA’s million-dollar space pen and the Soviet pencil has become one of the more enduring tales from the space race and still floats around the internet today and goes a bit like this. During the 1960’s as NASA was sending the first men into space and they realize that pens don’t work in zero gravity, so they spent years and millions of taxpayer dollars to develop one that did meanwhile in the Soviet Union the cosmonauts simply used pencils. The moral of the story to many is that NASA was a wasteful government organization that would be giving your hard-earned tax dollars to some greedy contractors charging sky-high prices for seemingly trivial objects whereas the enemy, the Soviets were common sense and practical. But the story is a myth, however like all good myths it’s based on facts, facts which over time like Chinese whispers end up as grossly exaggerated stories which are then taken at face value and purport to be the real facts. the true story of the space pen is a bit more down-to-earth start from the sandwich from the Gemini 3 mission on march 23rd 1965. The crew of the flight was Gus Grissom and John Young. After the mission it came to light the John Young had smuggled a sandwich on board in his space suit pocket. Although it had been allowed by the director of flight operations it was frowned upon by the flight surgeon because when they took bites out of two day old sandwich in orbit the crumbs floated around in the cabins microgravity and these could get into the electronics room cause a problem. At the time the astronaut had an exclusive deal with life magazine and some thought they had planned little stunts like this so as to reveal them in upcoming articles. In the earlier mercury missions it had been commonplace for non flight items to have found their way on board missions when it was discovered that the two mechanical pencils that the crew were using coughed $128 84 cents each $986 in today’s money and that NASA had bought 34 of them for a total price of $4382.50 the equivalent of $33,700 in today’s money the press had a field day and there was a public outcry. It turned out that the actual pencils only cost $1.75 each but they had custom-made housings so that the crew could hold and write with them whilst wearing their thick space suit gloves and that’s where most of the R&D and manufacturing costs of these housings has gone. The issue here was that people might not know what a flight computer or a rocket engine costs but when they see a pencil for a $128 they might well end up thinking what else are unscrupulous contractors have been overcharging for. After an investigation as to what was being carried on to mission it also turned out that they had on board for Japanese Pentel pencils which cost $0.49 each, something that NASA definitely didn’t want to be known about when they had flown alongside the $128 dollar American versions. During the mid-1960s, Paul Fisher inventor and owner of the Fisher Pen company patented what he called the “Space Pen”. Fisher knew about the issues with the NASA pencils and had the idea of making a pen that would work in space. The space pen had a cartridge pressurized with nitrogen and used a special gel ink that became liquid when the ballpoint rotated against the gel. It could write any angle on almost any surface in a vacuum even underwater and it worked in temperatures from minus 46C to plus 71C. However he didn’t have any official backing nor was he contracted by NASA, it was just his idea to make the perfect pen and he funded it privately with his own company’s money to the tune of reportedly $1 million dollars, how true that figure was might be up to question but it’s where the $1 million dollar price tag comes from. Fisher knew what space was the hot topic at the time so with a bit of creative writing copy he advertised he as “Space Pen by Fisher and it writes in space” this was something which NASA objected to when he tried to get a copy of the history of the Pens development reviewed by NASA, something was he managed to get into the congressional record of March 1966. He also submitted a version of the pen known as the AG-7 or Antigravity 7 for consideration to be used in upcoming Apollo missions. After the Gemini pencils debacle of a few years earlier and the need to make sure that everything in the small cabin and high oxygen content recirculated air system was safe, NASA had clamped down on what could be taken on to missions. So wood shavings and graphite from normal pencils, inks from pens and other things that could be floating around in microgravity were now considered to be a hazard to both the open switches in the electrics and also the crew as well as a fire hazard in the oxygen-rich atmosphere after the Apollo 1 fire disaster. NASA eventually opted to use the sealed AG-7 Fisher pens in the Apollo mission alongside felt-tip pens and they ordered 400 of them. As for the Soviets they moved away from pencils because the tips will break off and float around in the cabin. So for a while they used grease or wax pencils on plastic slates but these was not as durable as ink and they still had to dispose of a pencils paper wrapping safely, so in 1969 the Soviets also bought 100 Fischer Space Pens and 1,000 ink cartridges and the Space Pen went on to be a staple of not only the space missions but also many other industries too. So was the American Space pen better than the Soviet pencil, yes it was. Did it cost NASA a million dollars no it did not. Both NASA and the Soviets got a bulk buy discounted price of $6 dollars each. So as always thanks for watching and please subscribe, rate and share.

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