Ep. One – Fisher Space Pen vs The Russians

Intro

On the first episode of A Reasonable Breakdown I’m going to be exploring the popular story about the exorbitant amount of money the US government spent designing a pen that can write in space versus the Russians who solved the same problem using a pencil. Is it true? Is it false? Let’s find out!

Part one – Pencils In Space

The way the story goes the United States Congress approved funding for NASA to spend 10 years, millions of dollars, and in one example $165 million to be exact, developing a pen that could write in zero G, upside down, able to write on almost any surface and finally at temperatures below freezing to over 300 degrees Celsius.

Let’s step through this, shall we?

Historically pencils have been used by both space agencies, NASA and the Soviet Space Program. When NASA set out to design a writing instrument that would meet their stringent specifications they kept several things in mind:

  1. The pencil needed to be made in such a way that the astronauts could easily use it when inside their suits.
  2. It couldn’t be flammable
  3. It had to write in a myriad of situations

According to Scientific American, Tycam Engineering Manufacturing Inc. in Houston TX made 34 of these pencils which cost the tax payers $4,382.50 or $128.89 per pencil. When this information was made available to the public, people were upset. How can a pencil, the very same that I use and buy for pennies, cost so much money!?

It goes back to NSAS’s strict requirements. Space travel is dangerous. A space craft such as the shuttle or back then Apollo era rockets, were closed environments. One small spark could cause a catastrophic failure and result in damage to the craft or worse, deaths of the astronauts.

Pencils are made from graphite and wood. The wood is highly flammable, something that NASA wanted to avoid after the Apollo 1 fire. That alone makes pencils a flight risk. The graphite is equally dangerous. It can chip or flake apart into tiny particles which could impair the crew or cause issues with equipment. Pencils, regardless of the country that uses them, are simply not the best solution.

Part 2 – Paul Fisher, You’re Our Only Hope

Sorry, I had to throw in a Star Wars reference in an episode that talks about space!

First of all Congress did not approve the program that gave birth to the Fisher Space Pen. It’s all in the name. Mr. Paul Fisher, the head of the Fisher Pen Company saw a problem and set out on his own to develop a solution in 1965. If you don’t believe me do a search for patent #3,285,228. I’ll wait.

In short that patent was filed in May of 1965 by Paul C. Fisher with the US patent office. The patent was then granted and published in November of 1966.

That should be proof enough that neither NASA or Congress had a hand in developing this pen.

But let’s continue, shall we?

How much did this amazing pen cost? According to Scientific American Paul Fisher and his company put about $1 million into R&D. Fisher then offered the pen to NASA, who in turn spent 18 months rigorously testing the pen in all kinds of scenarios. At the end of the day, according to the Associated Press report from February of 1968, NASA ordered 400 pens for the Apollo program. The final cost for the pens after a 40% discount came out to be $2.39 per pen.

Now, History.nasa.gov’s website says they were purchased for $6 per unit, but either way it was a far cry from the $128 per pencil or the millions of dollars supposedly spent on the project.

Oh and a year after NASA purchased their pens, the Soviet Union ordered 100 for their Soyuz space missions. So even the Russians used the Fisher space pen.

That doesn’t bode well for the validity of this story, in my opinion.

Part 3 – The Devil’s in the Details

If you’re going to spread a story like this all over social media, please make sure you have all your facts straight. They almost got me but let’s take a look at some of the claims in this story that the space pen can do, which surprisingly gets most of the details right.

It can write in zero gravity. Check. That was the main point of the pen.

It can write upside down. Check. Because of the pressurized cartridge the pen is able to write upside down, in zero gravity even under water.

It can write on almost any surface. Yes, again due to the nature of the pressurized cartridge along with the ink used the Fisher Space pen could write on several different surfaces even in other liquids.

Finally, at temperatures below freezing to over 300 degrees Celsius. Here’s where it gets a little fuzzy. According to the official SpacePen.com website, the pen can operate in temperatures ranging from -30 F to +250 F or -35 C to +121 C. Now, NASA’s history page claims the pen can go from -50 F to +400 F, which is -45 C to +204 C. That’s nowhere close to 300 C. It’s still hot, hotter than I’d want to be, but again, get your details straight next time!

I’m not sure why anyone would want to spread misinformation just for a few measly likes on social media. I guess at the heart of this story is a lesson you can learn, simplicity sometimes is better than complexity, right? Or as one of my teachers once said, don’t use a 6 letter word when a 3 letter word would do.

Conclusion

So, is this story true? Is it false? Well, according to what I’m able to find it is indeed false. However this podcast isn’t here to tell you how to think, but to encourage you to think for yourself. The facts are there, all you have to do is look.

That’s it for this episode of A Reasonable Breakdown. Join me next time when I take a look at something called the Mansfield Bar, and how it got its name.

And if you want, stick around for another 90 seconds or so for the word of the day!

Word of the day

Every day I get an email from WordGenius.com with the word of the day. By the way, I’m NOT sponsored by them or anyone for that matter. I just found the timing of this example to be too good to pass up. When researching this episode I got the idea to include the word of the day and I find today’s word very fitting.

Sempiternal

Part of speech is an Adjective
Originates from 15th century Latin.

Here it is used in a sentence.

As an astronaut, I’m intrigued by the sempiternal vastness of space.”

That truly does do it for today’s episode of A Reasonable Breakdown. Have a nice day!

Link to episode:
https://anchor.fm/reasonablebreakdown/episodes/Fisher-Space-Pen-vs-The-Russians-ekjn7i