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The Million Dollar Space Pen
Status: Urban Legend
Dwayne Day has an interesting article in Space Review about the urban legend of the Million Dollar Space Pen. I'm sure you've heard the legend before. It's the one in which NASA pays a million dollars to develop a pen that will write in space. The Russians, meanwhile, being a bit more practical and budget-conscious, just use a pencil for their space missions.

The truth is that the space pen was independently developed in the mid-1960s by Paul Fisher of the Fisher Pen Company. He did it completely on his own, without prompting by NASA and without NASA money. It turned out to be a good pen, and NASA later started to use it. But they paid around $2 a piece for them. Not $1 million. Day notes that:

"The Million Dollar Space Pen Myth is just that, a myth. The pens never cost a lot of money and were not developed by wasteful bureaucrats or overactive NASA engineers. The real story of the Space Pen is less interesting than the myth, but in many ways more inspiring. It is not a story of NASA bureaucrats versus simplistic Russians, but a story of a clever capitalist who built a superior product and conducted some innovative marketing. That story, however, is a little harder to sell to a public that believes what it wants to believe."

I know that you can still buy space pens. I saw them for sale a few months ago at Restoration Hardware.
TechnologyUrban Legends
Posted by The Curator on Mon May 08, 2006
I've seent hem too. Not terribly impressive, really. Just a sealed ink capsule with a little piston inside, sealing the ink away from a compressed air pocket.

I've heard that they're not prone to leaking, but if they *do* leak, it's.. bad.
Posted by Robin Bobcat  in  Californian Wierdo  on  Tue May 09, 2006  at  01:14 AM
My mum's got one. Although I understand that they're not cheap to get refills for. However, that could be because we've got to got to get them from the US. wink
Posted by Smerk  in  to mischief  on  Tue May 09, 2006  at  02:45 AM
Why not use a pencil then? wink
Posted by Gutza  on  Tue May 09, 2006  at  02:51 AM
Damn, I really liked that story. Everytime I see one of the Space Pens, I'm tempted to buy it. Then I ask myself just how often I actually have to write upside down and put it back on the rack.
Posted by Cranky Media Guy  on  Tue May 09, 2006  at  03:42 AM
According to the Fisher Space Pen website (http://www.spacepen.com)

"Paul Fisher had been manufacturing better writing instruments with a devotion to accuracy, intellectual honesty and fairness long before the United States Space Program began. But when astronauts started to explore the reaches of outer space, Fisher realized that no existing pen could perform in its boiling hot vacuum. His common sense approach and practical experiments resulted in the invention of the sealed-pressurized Fisher Space Pen. After months of rigorous testing, NASA selected the Fisher Space Pen for use on all of the Apollo missions. They are still used on all manned space flights American and Russian."

So much for the Russian pencil story.
Posted by MadRat  on  Tue May 09, 2006  at  04:35 AM
There is actually an entire space pen catalog. The pens are not limited to Delorean silver and the subdued black ones seemed to have gotten some support from cops and soldiers.
Posted by Lonewatchman  on  Tue May 09, 2006  at  07:20 AM
My dad uses one...he's a truck driver. Sometimes he doesn't have a flat surface to write on...so being able to use the side of the tanker works pretty well. He uses forms with carbon between them, he's not allowed to use a pencil.

He had clip boards...but they kept breaking.
Posted by Maegan  in  Tampa, FL - USA  on  Tue May 09, 2006  at  08:10 AM
One of the telltale signs that the old pen/pencil story is a myth is the sheer impracticality of using a pencil in space. Can you imagine the chaos that would ensue if the end of the pencil broke? All those tiny bits floating around, getting inside equipment and up your nostrils and in your eyes? Just wouldn't work.
Posted by Dave Rattigan  in  Liverpool, England  on  Tue May 09, 2006  at  08:30 AM
also, nobody ever used a pencil, both american and russian used wax pens (I don't know the exact english name), like the ones used by sub workers because graphite is a conductor and in a pencil at 0-G tends to spread as dust around, going inside circuits and causing troubles
Posted by fizz  on  Tue May 09, 2006  at  10:50 AM
I had heard of the Space Pens before, but never heard that they cost $1 million or any other exhorbitant amount.

People probably have them confused with all the stories about the U.S. military paying $400 for a hammer and $13,000 for a toilet seat and so forth. Many of those reports are true, but more because of the corrupt procurement process than because the hardware is especially sophisticated.

It occurred to me, too, that pencils would be very impractical in a spaceship. What happens when you need to sharpen it? Just imagine trying to live in a sealed capsule with all those tiny shavings floating around weightlessly everywhere. You'd be choking on them constantly.
Posted by Big Gary  in  Gun Barrel City, Texas, USA  on  Tue May 09, 2006  at  02:03 PM
Us Canadians would probably use crayons. wink
Posted by Dracul  on  Tue May 09, 2006  at  03:25 PM
fizz, the word you're looking for is 'grease pencil' or more popularly, 'China marker'; so named because one would use it to write your family's name upon the bottom of your casserole dish or other dishes when taking them to the family reunion or other large potluck.

They have their problems too, so the space equivalent is something like a mechanical pencil with the waxy lead held tight. When they can't use a regular pen, that is.

Now what they *really* need to develop is porn that works in zero-G...
Posted by Robin Bobcat  in  Californian Wierdo  on  Wed May 10, 2006  at  02:07 AM
I had one of those space pens once. A friend of mine from NASA gave it to me, and said it had been up on one of the shuttles. I didn't have any reason to disbelieve him, so I suppose that it probably had done so. It didn't seem to work any better or any worse than any other good-quality pen, although I didn't get to use it much because somebody stole it.
Posted by Accipiter  on  Wed May 10, 2006  at  02:40 AM
My understanding is that, during the Apollo Soyuz Test Project during the height of detant in 1973-1975, the Soviet cosmonauts were so impressed with the pen they bought several at the Johnson Soace Center gift shop to use for their flights. While the sale of space related techn ology was prohibitted, this became the first commercial space product sold from America to the USSR.
Posted by Jim  in  KSC, FL  on  Wed May 10, 2006  at  07:00 AM
For the moment, i don't have any plan to go to space. So i don't need space pen. But I do want the pen Maegan's truck driver dad is using. i have difficulty writing on flat surface or on paper against the wall. i've got a few nice Bic pens but it often fails on too smooth surface.
Posted by t.kurione  on  Thu May 11, 2006  at  11:33 AM
"I know that you can still buy space pens. I saw them for sale a few months ago at Restoration Hardware." From your quote how do you know if they work in space. Have you been to space? I guess I could start selling markers and say they are space markers. Think of the possibilities.
Posted by Jack  on  Wed Aug 15, 2007  at  01:38 PM
It's a cute, if untrue story. I like it as the moral of the story is "don't blow time, energy and money on a complex solution when a simple one will work just as well".
Posted by OG  in  places  on  Sat Aug 01, 2009  at  12:46 AM
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