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The $12 Billion Zero-Gravity NASA Space Pen

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Netlore Archive: Rumor has it NASA spent $12 billion to develop a ballpoint 'space pen' for astronauts to use in zero gravity, while Russian astronauts simply used pencils.

Description: Urban legend
Circulating since: 1997 (as Netlore)
Status: False (see details below)

Example:
Email text contributed by R. Daugherty, Sep. 7, 2001:

Subject: NASA's Zero Gravity Pen

When NASA first started sending up astronauts, they quickly discovered the ballpoint pens would not work in zero gravity. To combat the problem, NASA scientists spent a decade and $12 Billion to develop a pen that writes in zero gravity, upside down, underwater, on almost any surface including glass and at temperatures ranging from below freezing to 300C.

The Russians used a pencil.


Analysis: This story perfectly illustrates the perils of government waste. Pity it's not quite true.

NASA didn't have $12 billion to spend on anything when it first started sending astronauts into space in the early 1960s. The agency's entire budget for the 1960 was $500 million; by 1965, it was up to $5.2 billion, still not enough to throw away $12 billion reinventing the ballpoint pen.

Be that as it may, beginning with the Apollo program astronauts did begin using a specially-designed zero-gravity pen called the Fisher Space Pen. The nitrogen-pressurized space pen worked in "freezing cold, desert heat, underwater and upside down," as well as in the weightless conditions of outer space.

It was developed not by NASA, however, but by one enterprising individual, Paul C. Fisher, owner of the Fisher Space Pen Company. By his own account, Fisher spent "thousands of hours and millions of dollars" of his own money in research and development — not billions.

The Fisher Space Pen is still used by both American and Russian astronauts on every space flight, and you can even buy one yourself direct from the company for a measly 50 bucks.

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Sources and further reading:

History of the Ballpoint Pen
Cosmopolis, October 2002

Pressurized Pen Pioneer Says Luck is Key to Success
Associated Press, 9 March 1997

America's Space Program
U.S. National Park Service


Last updated: 09/23/13


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