The Story of the Space Pen... May 5, 2006 0:31:46 GMT -6
Post by Chicago Astronomer Joe on May 5, 2006 0:31:46 GMT -6
The billion-dollar space pen
Everybody has heard of the infamous Space Pen.
Space has its urban legends of course, and the Million Dollar Space Pen is one of the more enduring ones. It is neither as outlandish nor as unbelievable as the story about faking the Moon landings, and even though it seems more credible than a massive government conspiracy, it is probable that fewer people have heard it.
The story goes like this: in the 1960s, NASA astronauts discovered that their pens did not work in zero gravity. So like good engineers, they went to work and designed a wonder pen. It worked upside down. It worked in vacuum. It worked in zero gravity. It even worked underwater! And it only cost a million dollars!
The crafty Russians used a pencil.
This story, like most modern urban legends, has proliferated on the Internet, but it has also been passed by word of mouth. I’ve even heard a well-known space historian tell the story while talking about his new book, getting the expected laugh from his audience when he held up a Number 2 pencil for the punchline. And, of course, the story has also been embellished, with cost of the writing device getting ever higher, from a million dollars to a hundred million dollars to a billion dollars in some variations. Undoubtedly at some point the cost will equal the mythical trillion-dollar price of a mission to Mars.
Gemini and the space pencil
On March 23, 1963 the spaceship Molly Brown (otherwise known as Gemini Titan 3) lifted off from Cape Canaveral on a mission that lasted shortly under five hours. Gus Grissom and John Young were onboard.
The flight earned a bit of notoriety soon after it ended when the astronauts were at a press conference and were asked about a “contraband” baloney sandwich that Young had carried aboard the flight in lieu of the officially approved food that they had been provided. Although the controversy might seem silly at first, it had more serious undertones because of the concern that the astronauts might have concocted it as a stunt. At the time, the astronauts had an exclusive deal with Life magazine, and reporters and members of Congress speculated that the astronauts were prone to smuggle items or engage in media stunts that they would only reveal in their magazine stories. Another issue was that the flight surgeon had not approved the sandwich and was concerned about it because of possible crumbs, and the fact that it was two days old.
This, however, was actually the second controversy about the flight. Earlier in the month, several newspapers reported that the mission would carry two pencils that cost $128.84 apiece. NASA had spent $4,382.50 to purchase 34 of the pencils.
The flap over the pencils, combined with the controversy over the sandwich, resulted in an investigation by NASA into what objects were carried aboard the spacecraft and why. The investigation revealed that in addition to the sandwich, the astronauts carried an American flag (flown with management approval), a diamond ring owned by Grissom, Florentine crosses of Saint Gemini that had been sent by someone in Italy to the astronauts—and a brassiere (hopefully not worn by one of the astronauts). The astronauts were cautioned by Deke Slayton about “such antics in the future.”
But the most sensitive items carried aboard Molly Brown were… four Pentel pencils with a total cost of $0.49. Deke Slayton “was instructed to take every precaution in preventing this item from becoming public,” wrote an investigator after the fact (PDF, 0.2 MB). It is easy to understand why: when Congress and the public were outraged about the expensive $129 mechanical pencils, they would be even madder to learn that regular (and Japanese!) pencils were carried as well.
The myth of the wasteful bureaucracy
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.
The Full and unedited story here: www.thespacereview.com/article/613/1
Dwayne day writes great early NASA accounts of interesting origin...