The US Space Pen and Russian Space Pencil Urban Legend (Well Sorta)

We are so accepting of Urban Legends because they usually conform quite nicely with what we already believe.  So nicely in fact, that there is hardly any need to doubt them or bother checking the facts.  So we believe that Pop Rocks and Coke are lethal, people are desperate enough that they steal kidneys, there are bodies hidden in the matresses of our hotel rooms, and so on.

For me, such was the case with the NASA Space Pen.  The tale, repeated on TV, the Internet, and by most Russians I’ve ever met goes something like this:

The US Space Program spent millions of dollars developing a Pen that could be used to write in zero-gravity.  The Russian Space Program opted for another solution to this problem: they simply used a pencil.

The only problem with this perfect metaphor of the two space programs is this: it too is an urban legend.  Well, mostly anyway.  You see a company (Fischer) did spend $1M (of its own money) to develop the pressurized, zero-gravity space pen.  It sold the pens to NASA for $2 a piece (NASA bought 40 of them) but went on to become an enormous commercial success.  Who else uses them?  Yep, the Russian Cosmonauts.  You see a pencil could too easily break and pose a FOD hazard.      

As Urban Legends go, this one mostly sticks to the facts:

  1. The US Military and Space programs do like to waste a lot of money
  2. Someone did spend a million dollars (of 1960s money) on this
  3. They did use pencils in space until this nifty invention came along  

So I think I’m going to stick to this Urban Legend, it is a heck of a lot simpler to explain at cocktail parties.  And then I can use this to segway into how to use a microwave to dry your pet and perhaps the latest sightings of bat-boy.

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