why the myth of nasa’s $165 million space pen just won’t die

The long-debunked story of NASA buying ridiculously expensive pens is just too gratifying for some people to pass up.
spacesuit prototype

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, or so I’d say if this wasn’t a written article before briefly recapping a viral tale of how NASA spent $165 million to design and manufacture pens for astronauts’ use in orbit and beyond while the savvy Soviets just used a pencil. It’s the kind of thing an older relative generally tells you in a condescending, mocking tone during a holiday political debate you’re seldom given the option of avoiding, and only one part of this story is actually true. For a while, Soviet cosmonauts did indeed use pencils in space until they saw the American design and quickly made the switch for an extremely important reason.

You see, back in the day, astronauts used expensive mechanical pencils which were both a bit overpriced, and a safety hazard in early space capsules filled with pure oxygen. Pencils are made of extremely brittle graphite, which is what allows it to make marks on paper. Normally, graphite dust just falls down to be swept up so it’s hardly an issue on Earth. But in the confined atmosphere of spacecraft in which humans are floating in perpetual freefall, it tends to stick around and gets into electronics, causing shorts that could trigger catastrophic fires in the combustible atmosphere. After one such short killed the crew of Apollo 1, NASA quickly decided to switch to pressurized pens and make space travel a lot more fire retardant.

After several tests, the agency bought 400 pens from the Fisher Space Pen Company, which says it spent nearly a million dollars on research and development from the founder’s own pockets, for $2,400. Seeing the efficacy of the pens and eager to improve safety, the USSR followed suit, placing their own order with the same company. While that’s a lot more than you’d pay for disposable office writing utensils, these pens could work without the need for gravity and in extreme temperatures, so it’s not exactly a stretch to imagine they should’ve really more than a throwaway one from your supply closet. But did they cost more than a hundred million dollars? Of course not.

So why does the myth persist? Because, again, note who likes to invoke it and why. It’s used as proof that the government is full of dimwitted bureaucrats with no idea of what things should cost and elitist nerds who are no match for scrappy street smarts. The fact that cheap pencils could’ve actually killed human explorers and that they only spent a few grand buying a proven design from an enterprising small business interferes with the ability of the people re-telling it to feel superior to the engineering dorks and paper pushers whose salary they pay with their taxes. As long as it makes affirms the belief systems of government-loathing conservatives and libertarians, this ridiculous, grotesquely distorted tale will live on.

# space // skeptcism / space exploration / space travel

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