Have you heard the story that NASA supposedly spent millions of dollars developing a very special pen that could be used in the unique environment of space, while the Russians simply used a pencil? The joke is that Americans spend money needlessly on complicated solutions to simple problems.
But believe it or not, this little story is not only false and very misleading but there are actually many viable reasons why pencils are not a very good tool to use in space. Generally speaking, people don’t spend a ton of money on a problem unless there is a good reason to, and there are many reasons to not use pencils in space.
Of course, we don’t expect you to believe us without any evidence, but don’t worry about that. We’ll be discussing why exactly pencils aren’t used in space, and why it was actually a good idea for NASA to spend all that effort and money making a workable pen for outer space.
Aren’t Pencils Good Enough for Space?
Upon first inspection, it may seem like pencils are the obvious answer to a writing utensil in space. They aren’t mechanical, they have no moving parts: they are incredibly simple, so how could they not be a sufficient choice? Well, it’s because, in space, problems that would be considered mundane on Earth are much more serious.
For one, pencils aren’t as durable as pens and are more likely to break, shatter, or splinter. Not a big deal on Earth, but it’s a hassle in zero gravity, where all of those little fragments are going to fly off into the corners of the shuttle or space station. Even something as simple as the lead tip breaking will send graphite dust flying everywhere.
Even the wood that most pencils are made out of can be a big problem in space. Naturally, wood is very flammable, and pressurized shuttles and space stations are often oxygen-rich environments. The presence of wood needlessly increases the risk of a fire, which would be catastrophic in space.
Most of this sounds like it wouldn’t really be a big deal. But even the smallest issue can cause great harm in space since most things are delicate out there. That’s why no one wants splinters of wood and graphite flying around everywhere, especially with all of that sensitive equipment.
Did NASA Ever Use Pencils in Space?
Normal pens don’t work in space for a variety of reasons, and astronauts still needed something to write with, so yes, pencils were still used by NASA for a time. In 1965, NASA notoriously ordered 34 specially-made mechanical pencils that could work in space. Why was this not good enough?
Well, these pencils cost $128 each, and that was a lot of money for a writing implement back then (even more so than it is now!). Public backlash on such exorbitant spending for something so basic was pretty severe, and NASA knew they needed a different, preferably more affordable solution. Thankfully, someone did the work for them.
Where Did Space Pens Come From?
Contrary to popular belief, NASA did not pour tons of money and research hours into making some sort of flawless space pen. In fact, they had nothing to do with the creation of such a pen at all. The first space pen was designed by Paul Fisher, head of the Fisher Pen company. NASA didn’t ask him to make the pens: he just did it on his own.
These pens used compressed nitrogen to force ink out instead of gravity, meaning it could write upside down, underwater, and in space. Two different times, both in 1965 and 1967, Fisher contacted NASA, asking them to try his pens. After months of testing, NASA was suitably impressed and ordered 400 of them.
NASA didn’t order the development of these pens, nor did they contribute any funding to it. Fisher offered a 40% discount, and NASA ended up buying them for only $2.39 a pen. On top of all of this, the Soviets did not stick with their pencils: they ended up buying these exact same pens for their own astronauts to use.
The very first time the Fisher Space Pen was used was in 1968 on the Apollo 7 mission. Despite how long ago that was, these same pens have been used in every manned space mission since then.
Is It Really Worth the Switch?
The issues mentioned previously might seem minor, but when it only costs a few dollars to completely eliminate those problems from existing at all, why wouldn’t you? That’s really the logic behind using pens instead of pencils in space. Sure, maybe the chances of pencil wood causing some sort of fire are next to zero, but why risk it at all?
When you consider how expensive all of that equipment in space is, even the slightest chance of it all being damaged or destroyed is a big deal, and if you can negate that risk by buying some pens, space agencies are definitely going to do that. What’re a few more dollars on top of tens of millions?
Besides, astronauts already perform very dangerous work and expose themselves to great risk. Their lives are already of great value, but that doesn’t even take into consideration the cost of training and equipping them. Space agencies don’t want to take any risk, even the smallest ones, in regard to that.
At the end of the day, it’s all about spending a little bit of extra money to negate just a few more potential risks, no matter how minute they are.
- All brass & steel construction, pocket clip, chrome-plated nose tip & tungsten carbide ballpoint tip
- The 400 series bullet space pen is the original Fisher ball point pen & most popular Fisher pen sold
- Pressurized thixotropic ink cartridges are hermetically sealed & write 3x longer than ballpoint pens
- Reliably performs in extreme temperatures (-30F to +250F), underwater, in zero gravity, at any angle
- Precision assembled & hand-tested with a lifetime guarantee against all manufacturing defects
Space pens are actually quite cheap, and that’s why space agencies use them. But that doesn’t mean pencils were never used in space at all. That said, since pencils can cause a few problems in space, they were only used by astronauts for as long as they had to be, and no longer than that.