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Space and Physics

Sorry Everybody: The Urban Legend About Space Pencils Is Complete Nonsense

James Felton

James Felton

Senior Staff Writer

clockApr 21 2021, 18:13 UTC

A pencil in space. Image credit: Ahmet Misirligul/shutterstock.com, sdecoret/shutterstock.com, IFLScience

There's a story that every few years makes its way around the Internet. It usually goes along the lines of this:

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NASA found out that ballpoint pens wouldn't work in microgravity, and so they spent millions (or in some outlandish retellings, billions) of dollars to develop a pen that would work. Eventually, after throwing all that money at it, they had designed a pen that could write upside-down, the right way up, in extremes of temperature and pressure. They then go and show this pen off to the Soviets, who reply "we use pencils".

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You can see the appeal to certain people: a tale of bureaucrats at NASA overspending never pausing to think of the obvious solution right in front of their eyes the whole time. To borrow a phrase from John Wick: A pencil, a f*****g pencil. 

It is, of course, complete nonsense.

First off, for NASA's first missions to space, they used pencils. There was a whole controversy around it, in fact, when in 1965 it was discovered that they had purchased 34 units at a total cost of $4,382.50, or $128.89 per pencil. They cost so much because of their high-strength outer casings, which contained the mechanical pencil inside. 

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Nevertheless, with the public mad at the cost of space pencils, NASA looked around for alternatives. But they did not spend a whole pile of cash coming up with an alternative. 

Paul C. Fisher of the Fisher Pen Co. designed - on his own dollar - a ballpoint pen that would operate in space. The pen contained a pressurized ink cartridge which would help force the ink out in a weightless environment. It could also work underwater, in other liquids, and in temperature extremes ranging from -50 F to +400 F, so would last if the space station suddenly landed in the ocean or a volcano and the astronauts somehow were forced to fight their way back out but after a game of Pictionary. 

Fisher offered the pens to NASA, who purchased the super space pens for just $6 per pen, for the Apollo missions. What's more, when the Soviet Union heard of these pens they purchased them too. They had been using grease pencils before this but were sold by the obvious advantages of the new space pens.

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Using a pencil in space is a really bad idea. The tips can fall off and get caught in equipment. Having flammable material in a high oxygen environment is also a terrible idea, which is another reason why both space agencies were so keen on getting rid of the graphite that came with pencils.

In short, don't believe everything you read on the Internet. Except for this, obviously.


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