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Did You Know That The Million Dollar NASA Space Ship Pen Story Is A Myth?

Updated on October 11, 2013

How many times have you read or heard the story about NASA spending money to the tune of millions of dollars in research dedicated to creating a pen that could survive under the harsh conditions of the space ship? I am sure you have heard some version of that story. Some say that the spend was $12 billion (!!) while others give a more tame figure of $1.2 million.

Regardless of what version you have heard, the probability is that you have heard a rehash of the myths that abound the internet.

Here is another rehashed version of the “Legend Of The Million Dollar Pen”

The basic problem refers to the time frame of the 1960s when the American and Russians were not so friendly and there was a constant struggle to one up the other one. As “legend” has it, the Americans were looking for a pen that worked perfectly in zero gravity conditions like that of the space ship in the out space. The pen was also required to be able to write on several surfaces and to be anti freeze and probably other several things. Since they couldn’t find a solution, the NASA guys just coughed up millions of dollars and funded a research which resulted in the development of the said pen which was the answer to all their prayers.

All this while the Russians were sitting back and enjoying the American buffoonery. Finally, one fine day, and with a significant flourish I believe, the Russians unveiled their solution – a pencil. Yes, and to think of all the money and time the Natives could have saved!

Now, the less amazing truth

Originally, NASA did use pencils in space but they posed several problems. The pencil leads tend to break off and float about in the zero gravity space ships. Plus the shavings of the pencil were also a problem, so was the high inflammability of the lead used in pencil.

On the other hand, the Fisher Pen Company was researching the design of a pen that could be used in extreme conditions. The company did invest money to the tune of $1 million towards developing this small gadget like pen. The result was legendary. The Fisher pen which was patented in 1965 could be used upside down and in temperatures as extreme as minus 50° F to 400° F. NASA tested and found the pens to be good enough for their purpose. Reportedly, NASA bought 400 pens at the cost of $1000. A year later Russia followed suit and started using these pens.

What is so special about these pens?

The space pens, also known as Fisher’s pens have some unique characterstics which set them apart and of course these traits themselves are a result of diligent research done through a number of years. Most ball point pens that you and I use rely on gravity to pull down their ink towards the writing point or the “nib”. Try writing on a paper stuck on a wall, in all probability you won’t be able to write more than a few words. Fisher’s pens however do not use the force of gravity to ensure the ink flow. Instead a highly pressurized cartridge is used. The pressure inside the cartridge itself pushes the ink towards the tungsten carbide ball which is what the pen’s tip is made of.

The ink used is also not ordinary. Instead of the usual fluid like ink, Fisher’s pens use a gell like material which is solid and which turns into fluid due to the movement of the ballpoint. The pressurized nitrogen inside the cartridge ensures that no air mixes with the ink thus removing any chance of the ink getting oxidized. This pen can be used for writing in extreme temperatures and even underwater (however, why would anyone want to write underwater is a good question).

Not only is the warranty of these pens is unconditional lifetime but the high quality of material used in the building of the pen’s exteriors gives it a supreme finish. All this for $50 is certainly a steal in this day and age and I think every science or space/astronomy enthusiast should own one of these.


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