In A Nutshell
An urban legend says that NASA spent millions developing a pen for its astronauts, while the Soviet Union just gave their men pencils. While that’s not a good idea anyway (mainly because of dust and the possibility of breakage), it’s not true. NASA did spend an outrageous amount on mechanical pens for Gemini, but by the time Apollo came around, astronauts were using a space pen that had been invented independently by the Fisher Pen Company with no NASA funding. That was eventually the pen the space program decided on, and the Soviet Union used it, too.
The Whole Bushel
Chances are pretty good that you’ve heard the story that pokes fun at government overspending and what seems like a complete lack of common sense on the part of the massive machine that is NASA. It tells the story about how NASA spent millions of dollars inventing a pen that could write in zero gravity, while the Soviets just gave their astronauts a pencil.
Hilarious, right? But there’s a real story behind the whole saga of NASA space pens, and that’s not it.
First off, let’s look at why pencils are an absolutely dumb solution to the problem of writing in the zero-gravity conditions of a space station or shuttle. Graphite pencils give off a minute amount of dust, especially if they break, and that means they’re a potential source of irritants in a sealed and very delicate artificial environment. They’re also extraordinarily flammable under those same conditions—they’re made of graphite and wood, after all.
So a pen was needed, and there were a whole series of requirements that made it impossible to use any old pen. They needed to be able to be used by astronauts wearing gloves, they had to be absolutely shatterproof, and they had to be ridiculously lightweight, as every ounce on a space mission counts.
In 1965, NASA bought a set of space-worthy mechanical pencils for Project Gemini. The pencils came from Tycam Engineering Manufacturing, Inc., and the bill for 34 pencils was a staggering $4,382.50. Neither Congress nor the American public would stand for that nonsense. Only a few days before the Gemini launch, NASA found itself bombarded with requests to justify the massive expense.
After the Gemini mission, it was leaked that astronauts had carried a whole bunch of items up into space that hadn’t been approved for the launch. There was a sandwich (of particular concern because of the potential for crumbs), a diamond ring, and some totally normal pencils.
Amid the following outcry over the apparent waste of government funding, NASA started looking elsewhere for another option when it came to pencils (even as it also cracked down on astronauts who tried taking personal items with them).
NASA stumbled across a man named Paul Fisher and his Fisher Pen Company and found that he had inadvertently invented a pen that would work perfectly for them. And NASA didn’t spend a dime in development. The pressurized pen was designed to work even when it was subjected to extreme temperatures or was underwater, and its ink cartridge would work in zero gravity.
When Fisher offered NASA the pens, they were initially refused. Then, NASA bought another even more expensive Fisher pen, while giving the Space Pen a wide berth. It was only after a whole lot of testing that NASA finally agreed to use the Space Pens for Apollo.
Four hundred pens cost a total of $2,400. Fisher’s Space Pens also landed a contract with the Soviet Union.