The Truth Behind The Million Dollar Space Pen Hoax

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You might have heard about a famous legend that America spent millions on the production of a "Space Pen" that writes upside down, whereas the Russians used only a pencil. Here's the reality behind this legend. Actually, the Space Pen was industrialized by a private company and sold at very cheap rates to NASA for space flights as part of a marketing promotion. The Russians, by the way, used them too. The actual kicker of the entire flap about the million-dollar Space Pen was it came on the heels of another expensive writing tool. The early Apollo mission was involved in a scandal when the people found out that astronauts were using pencils priced at $128.89. People were mad to discover that NASA ordered over four thousand dollars’ worth of pencils, and an investigation was opened into the matter. At the investigation the NASA representative, possibly the guy who'd drawn the short straw that day, resignedly clarified that the pencils were actually made of different fibers, but were a bargain at $1.75 each. The additional money came from the fact that they had to be improved so that they could be attached to the interior of the space ship and be used by somebody wearing a space suit.

In reality, pencils were a poor implement to use inside a space ship. The tips can break, sending fragments into tools. Even if the tips were dangerous, the pencils ultimately required sharpening. And pencils burn, which is certainly not a decent in space. A pen was a more useful gadget, but after the price mess, they weren't about to produce something new. Fortunately, they were spared the high cost by Paul Fisher of the Fisher Pen Company, Paul Fisher of the Fisher Pen Company had spent a million of his own dollars in developing another pen. The Fisher Space Pen was a striking perfection over conventional ballpoints. At the time, the ink in a ballpoint was hardly reserved in a closed container. Open to air, it would dry and jam the pen. Fisher stopped this by manufacturing a closed ink cartridge for the pen. But there was also another problem. The ordinary pens had open casings had ink that would flow easily. If the casing was closed, when the ink streamed down around the ball, it made a vacuum at the top of the casing as the ink tried to empty out leaving nothing behind. The ink stopped flowing down and the pen ultimately stopped working.

To tackle this problem, Fisher compelled the cartridge with nitrogen. The ink now had about 40 pound per square inch of nitrogen pushing it down on the way to the ball and out of the pen. This demonstrated to be too much. The ink, due to the pressure of nitrogen, was forced out of the pen, making a leakage. Fisher had to end the leak, without reducing the pressure. There was no structural solution inside the pen, so he had to use the structure of the ink. As a substitute of a regular liquid, Fisher produced a thixotropic liquid. If you hold the bottle upside down nothing happens. Thixotropic liquid is like a ketchup. Shake it, and enough ketchup will come out to soak a plate. Fisher prepared an ink that was more gel-like. So when the ball of the pen stirred, the ink would be disturbed - like ketchup in a shaken bottle - and flow easily. When it was left in peace, it remained in the pen, even under pressure applied by nitrogen.

Fisher presented the Space Pen to NASA for a low price of $1.98, and shortly it was flying on missions with astronauts. Which is precisely the kind of marketing that Fisher desired. The Space Pen caught on, and is still sold, even though other corporations make other pens founded and promoted on the same principle. The Space Pen became so popular, that the Soviets took notice, and supported the design on their missions. Though, the idea that America likes its sparkly toys and its extravagant bureaucracy, while the Soviet Union was a model of lean effectiveness, and the Space Pen/Pencil story caught on.

The actual kicker? Even though the Space Pen was ultimately used on missions, and although NASA did thankfully buy from the Fisher Pen Company, the first pens bought by NASA were not Space Pens, but ordinary ballpoints. Why? Because even though only the Space Pen writes upside down, ballpoint pens do write in space.
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