Geek Trivia: The (space) pen is mightier

How much did NASA pay for the original lot of "space pens"?

Raise your hand if you've ever had to sit through a meeting that recounted the anecdote of NASA spending millions of dollars developing a high-tech writing pen that could function in microgravity, while the crafty and resource-strapped Soviets simply gave their cosmonauts a pencil. Great parable, isn't it? It really underscores the wisdom of not overthinking the problem (and certainly not wasting technical resources on the "slick" solution).

IT folks in particular have heard this tale more than their fair share since it seems to apply directly to engineering problems -- not to mention its appeal to budget-obsessed managers. It's too bad then that it's a load of science fiction.

The first writing implements NASA sent into space were, in fact, pencils. The same was true of all early Soviet spaceflights. This was also incredibly stupid.

While pencils might have the advantage of being microgravity-effective, they also have the disadvantage of their construction. Two relatively flammable materials -- wood and graphite -- were only more dangerous in the 100-percent oxygen environment present in all pre-Apollo manned NASA spacecraft. Add in the fact that broken graphite tips become airborne irritants in zero-G, and pencils are actually a pretty dumb thing to send into space no matter how cost-effective they might seem.

So, NASA spent some money trying to develop a better pencil, creating some highly expensive oversized mechanical pencils for use by astronauts. The final product was an average $1.75 mechanical pencil mechanism placed in a special housing large enough for astronauts to use while wearing thick spacesuit gloves, strong enough that they wouldn't shatter and create microgravity debris, and light enough not to significantly impact spacecraft weight constraints.

The final cost? Those space-worthy pencils cost $128.84 in 1965 dollars -- a fact that came to the attention of Congress and the media, both of which found the figure excessive.

In reaction to the pencil controversy, NASA sought bids for cheaper writing implements for space missions. It found a suitable ink pen independently developed by a private manufacturer -- the Fisher Pen Company -- with no input or financial support from the space agency.

These now-famous "space pens" were actually cheaper than NASA's homegrown pencils by a significant margin, and the original lot of NASA-procured space pens cost the agency far less than the purported millions it mythically spent to develop the devices.


How much did NASA pay for the first lot of microgravity-friendly space pens -- a cost far lower than the mythically purported millions of dollars the agency shelled out to develop these supposed boondoggle writing implements?

NASA bought a lot of 400 Fisher AG-7 ink pens in early 1968 for a wholesale price of $2.39 each -- a total cost of $956. The $2.39 unit price was a 40 percent markdown from retail, which is the same discount the Fisher Pen Company offered the Soviet Union when it ordered a lot of 100 AG-7s in 1969. So much for the crafty Soviet adoration of the humble pencil, eh?

And for those counting at home, NASA could buy 53 space pens for the cost of one space pencil -- and still have $2.17 left over. There's private sector efficiency for you.

To be fair, company founder Paul C. Fisher did spend about $1 million out of his own pocket to develop his line of space pens, but it was purely of his own volition -- NASA hadn't even thought about contracting out a space pen when Fisher started his work. Fisher patented his pen in 1965, but it took about two years -- and the aforementioned pencil fiasco -- for NASA to agree to use it.

In simplest terms, the space pen differed from other ballpoint pens in two key ways, both involving the ink. First, the ink cartridge is pressurized with nitrogen, so that pressing down on the ballpoint forcibly releases ink, much like pressing the nozzle of an aerosol can releases its contents. Second, the ink itself is a viscous gel rather than a fluid, and only the ballpoint roller thins the ink out enough for it to write. These two factors let the pen write without gravity, air, or significant heat.

Besides being more affordable and safer than NASA's space pencils, the AG-7 space pen earned its astronaut's wings most famously during Apollo 11. An arming switch that allowed Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong to lift off from the moon's surface broke, and they used a space pen as a substitute lever, earning it a place in the official mission log, space flight history, and -- of course -- Geek Trivia.

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in a future edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from the May 2 edition of Geek Trivia, "One tall order." TechRepublic member slprice busted me for improper pluralization.

"The proper plural form for antenna, as used in your article [about skyscrapers], is antennas. Antennae are zoological."

Right you are, dear reader. Thanks for the entomological error check, and keep those quibbles coming!

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.