Pen and pencil myths

There’s a popular myth that NASA spent “millions” of dollars developing a pen for astronauts to use in the weightless environment of a space ship — while their sensible Russian counterparts were happy to use the low-tech pencil.  Alas, for all its appeal and plausibility, this is not true.  Initially, astronauts and cosmonauts were both equipped with pencils, but there were problems: if a piece of lead broke off, for example, it could float into someone’s eye or nose.  A pen was needed, one that would defy gravity, write in extreme heat or cold, and be leak proof: blobs of ink floating around the cabin would be more perilous than a stray pencil lead.  A long-time pen maker named Paul C. Fisher patented the “space pen” in 1965 (which he had developed at the cost of a million dollars, at the request of but not under the auspices of NASA.)  NASA bought four hundred of them at $6 each, and, after a couple of years of testing, the pens were put into space.

That is from Kitty Burns Florey, Script & Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting.


Who, acting on behalf of Moscow, first floated the erroneous yarn?


Crayons might not work in extreme heat or cold.

How often do astronauts write in extreme temperatures? On spacewalks? The interior of the shuttle / spacelab has HVAC right?

Specs clearly state extreme temperatures. I have no idea if that is really needed, but crayons melt on hot summer days.

Maybe we should spec out the spaceship for a temperature range that keeps crayons from melting.

Seems you must think the shuttle landed on the moon back in 1969, less than a decade after it carried Alan Sheppard into space as the first American in space.

The computer in your microwave is more powerful than the computers on the first US space vehicles.

Check lists were paper with lists of items that were checked off with a pen or pencil in those days.

can break off just like pencils. i'd bet "crayon piece in nose" is far more common in gravity-bound medicine than "pencil piece in nose"

Most things can chip or break. I actually recall hearing at the time that they used grease pencils.

As an aside, a marginal progressive could think very much the same was as I do plus the minor adjustment that they could think the act of taking money away from the "rich" is also a benefit.

(oops, comment goes below under Mike)

The most expensive pen was the one used by Bush for the "ten year" tax cut.

Expensive to who? Net tax consumers?

Future Americans.

That would be the pen used to sign Social Security you would be thinking. It costs us nothing to let a man keep what is his but it take a huge apparatus to confiscate and squander the wealth of a nation.

It is amazing how ignorant children are of even the most basic economic principles these days.

Actually, it was FDR when he saddled us with decades of paying off his Ponz...oh never mind.

Geez Bill, when are you going to realize that taxes COST money. Most of them have a deadweight loss. This cost increases proportional to the square of the increase in the tax rate. Tax cuts SAVE money.

The most expensive pens, by far, were the souvenir pens of Barack Obama.


If that were true, the most efficient possible economy would be one with 0 taxes and 0 government: literal anarchy. Clearly some taxes can have a net benefit to an economy.

That bears out as some government programs, like food stamps, add $1.78 to the economy for every $1 they spend. If the taxes to pay for that dollar cost $1.15, it is a net gain for the government to tax you.

Clearly, some government activity is beneficial to the economy. However, I'd like to see a serious economic analysis of the food stamp claim. If there is one on the web, I can't find it.

When someone spends a dollar, there is clearly a multiplier effect in the economy--but what was the multiplier effect on the dollar that was taken out of the economy to pay for it? In addition, the need to administer the program guarantees that more tax dollars need to be collected than can actually be given out in benefits. I am skeptical that the government moving dollars from one place to another in this way really creates an overall benefit.

Until the mobs of hungry poor people come burn down your house and eat you.


I disagree. Taxes are a cost. You can look at the benefit side separately.

The way I look at the benefit side is if the government is really solving intractable coordination problems. This is more stringent than just public goods as a lot of people understand them, because there are all kinds of things that meet the definition of a public good (although amazingly fewer than the things the government currently does) but nobody really wants. An alien missile defense system might be a public good, but it's also a worthless boondoggle.

>An alien missile defense system might be a public good, but it’s also a worthless boondoggle.

You say that now, but just wait....

Do the voices in your head ever let up? I really do feel sorry for you, it must be hard just getting through a single day with so much hatred built up inside you for a man you've never even met.

Dr. Empathy, You have trouble taking a joke, or perhaps humor hits too close to the mark.

A million dollars on research and $4000 in revenue. Not a great return on investment, eh?

It was a consumer product also, and they used the NASA connection for advertising. I had a couple of them when I was a kid. They were pressurized so they wrote upside down. Pretty cool. Apparently they're still on the market -- the same story Tyler recounts is in the 'Space Pen' wikipedia page. I hadn't remember that was a space pen in the Seinfeld episode.

"A million dollars on research and $4000 in revenue. Not a great return on investment, eh?"

Far better than Solyndra.

400 at $6 each is $2,400 in revenue. Don't worry, overstating revenue is commonplace.

Even more interesting, the Wikipedia link above says that the Space Pen was also sold to the Soviet space program! How's that for turning the urban legend on its head?

This issues was addressed in the (recent?) Bollywood hit 3 Idiots. (Highly recommended even for non-bollywood lovers -- it is a great movie). The professor asked at the beginning the class something about why NASA used the pens in space, and the bright kid asked why did they just not use pencils. Later the professor explained the dangers of pencil junk. If I recall correctly, the movie did leave the impression that NASA spent millions on the pen.

I hate to admit it, but it looks like one more thing my favorite Bollywood got wrong!!

NASA pen was mentioned in seinfeld episode ...

JACK: This is an astronaut pen. It writes upside down. They use this in space.

JERRY: Wow! That's the astronaut pen. I heard about that. Where did you get it?

JACK: Oh it was a gift.

JERRY: Cause sometimes I write in bed and I have to turn and lean on my elbow to make the pen works.

JACK: Take the pen.

JERRY: Oh no.

JACK: Go ahead.

I am considering whether I should learn the new fact or be a good economist and stick with the more amusing story.

"If it's a choice between the truth and the legend, print the legend."

So the pen cost a million to develop and revenue was initially $2400. That's quite a loss.

According to Bill's Law, this "cost" taxpayers about a quarter million in tax revenue. The government subsidy for failure is pretty high, and with a progressive tax, the subsidy is greater the bigger a failure you are. It's OK to subsidize risk taking in entrepreneurship, but at some point the expected benefit isn't worth the cost. Loss carry forwards or carry backs increase the incentive for failure or risk taking.

With student loan interest, you get a bigger deduction if you earn less with your education and no deduction if you earn a lot from your education. This is one reason we have too many Education and Sociology and English majors.

How long can a nation survive when it subsidizes failure and taxes success?

Soviet military doctrine was to reinforce success. Even the Red Army figured out the economics of this.

I also meant to say that Fisher probably had greater than $2400 in total returns, selling pens to non astronauts and gains from spinoff technology. But the rate of return was probably awful. The interesting thing is his private decision for a capital outlay. Did he expect them to be hot sellers for the forseeable future? I guess he didn't count on the internet, the end of manned space exploration, and China to erode profit potential.

Id love to know what the ex post return on that investment was.

I'd guess they felt the promotional value and bragging rights were worth the million dollars. On the other hand there's the mind boggling possibility that they felt it was an honor to be able to provide something to NASA that they were uniquely qualified to develop. It's possible they did it for purely patriotic reasons. Imagine!

Bulova and Omega competed for the Moon Watch and Omega won. Omega issued an anniversary edition Speedmaster a few years ago. Bulova had the more innovative tuning fork design which was used for spacecraft panel clocks and timers.

Omega also won the product placement war against Rolex for James Bond films. Originally, Albert Broccoli loaned Sean Connery his own Rolex Submariner when Rolex refused to provide a watch. After repeated snubs, 007 switched permanently to the Omega Seamaster.

As a point of comparison, consider the wrist watches worn by astronauts. Early in the space program, someone from NASA bought some good quality watches from a Houston jeweller to evaluate them. Remember that this was before quartz watches were available: all the candiates were wind-up tick-tock watches. They went through a series of very tough tests which the Omega Speedmaster survived the best so NASA bought a bunch. Omega didn't know their watch had been selected until after someone recognised the watch in a photo.

Eventually, a parochial campaign was mounted to try to get an American watch that could pass the tests. NASA had to select the lowest quoted price of all the watches that passed. Omega quoted a price of $0.01 each, to make sure they got the order, but none of the other watches passed.

For many years, the only watch flown in space was the Omega Speedmaster. Omega did very well out of the publicity and their 50 year old design still sells well at about $2000 to $3000.

Actually, there was another pretty early on. The Breitling Cosmonaute was flown on Scott Carpenter's 1962 flight.

I have one of those pens.
It writes upside down, or at any angle.
It's a nice pen.

The graphite in a pencil is more dangerous than just possible discomfort in the eye or nose. Graphite is conductive. Some graphite dust in the wrong circuit and you're in a lot of trouble.

Probably made worse by lack of gravity. Plain old dust must be really annoying.

If my job required me to write upside down frequently, I might think my solution is not the new pen but a new job. My conclusion to the exercise would probably be something like "why don't we just stay on the earth." That would float like a lead balloon in the staff meeting. It's why I do so poorly in corporate.

My choice for a prestige pen, if I didn't want to mess with fountain pens, would be a Fisher Space Pen. You know, the "If I could only have one decent pen" game? ["If I could only have one book by this author" being my favorite variant on that game, but I digress again.]

Just get the fountain pen, it looks fancier and you won't actually be using it anyway, because no one writes by hand anymore.

I have read that the trusty ball point pen would have sufficed. The zero gravity would not effect the gel contact on the ball point, only liquid pens and alike would suffer from a dry nib. Good work buy Paul C though, nice way to make money from the government.

Not quite. The liquid pens will fail immediately, however a ballpoint pen will see the ink distribute itself through the barrel pretty quickly. Try writing with one upside down or against a the time you're done with a few sentences the pen has gone dry. Now imagine doing that while on a spacewalk. One wrong move and the pen becomes another piece of spacejunk (if you're lucky).

Broken tips from graphite pencils caused failures on the initial Russian flights. Because of redundancy, the crew came back (mostly) unharmed, but given enough flights and a constant rate of breaking...

pics or it didn't happen

Millions of dollars? No, not true. Million of dollars.

Still available.

And one could argue that Fisher Space Pen Company has a better idea of their corporate mission than NASA does right now.

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