Space pen

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Warning — another in the JC’s collection of amusing but apocryphal stories about space flight. This one an excellent fable for shutting up technolocal evangelist types.

During the heady days of the space program, technologists hit upon a snag: in zero-gravity, a ballpoint pen will not work, as it relies on gravity to push the ink down into the ball mechanism. This is why you cannot write upside down with a biro.

What to do, for our brave astronauts of the sky? Well, being keen supporters of the entrepreneurial private sector, NASA commissioned a chap by the name of Fisher[1] to design a pen that would work in zero-gravity. The result, after hundreds of thousands of dollars (millions in today’s money!) of research and development, was the Fisher Space Pen, a device so clever that it was used reliably on missions from Apollo 7 onward, and and can still be purchased from good retailers today.

Meanwhile, in Irkutsk, the Russian space program had the same problem. Their man, Maxim Gorsky, came up with a simpler solution: the Russians sent their cosmonauts into space with pencils.


The story is only partly true — or false, if you accept Snopes’ categorisation — and the reasons behind the parts that are right are far more subtle. But all fiction has the power to educate

It had occurred to NASA to use pencils: indeed it had used pencils on all missions up to Apollo 7. However the graphite in pencil lead has a habit of flaking, which presented some respiratory risks and could potentially interfere with instruments. Also, after the Apollo 1 fire, which killed three astronauts on the launch pad, NASA was interested removing flammable objects — like wooden pencils — from the cockpit.

But still.

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Problem solving


  1. Actually, Fisher just went out and built it and offered it to NASA, entrepreneur-fashion.