MIGHTY HISTORY

No, NASA didn't waste millions making the space pen

Everyone loves to share that apocryphal story of NASA spending millions on a space pen while the Soviet Union wisely just used pencils instead. But the story is actually all wrong. The U.S. and Russia actually both bought the space pen once a private company developed it.

Look, this whole article is basically a rant written because we're getting tired of seeing comments about this every time we talk about NASA and/or Roscosmos. Somewhere in the comments on those articles, on our videos, or really anywhere across the internet as a whole, you'll see someone sharing that same stupid story of NASA investing millions in space pens while Russia sensibly used pencils instead.

Nearly all of that story is complete and utter nonsense.


NASA astronaut and former Air Force test pilot Col. Gordon Fullerton, wearing communications kit assembly mini headset, watches a free-floating pen during checklist procedures on the aft-deck of Space Shuttle Columbia during the third shuttle mission, STS-3, in 1982.

(NASA)

A few quick things: First, neither NASA nor Roscosmos spent a single dime developing the space pen. NASA and Roscosmos both gave their spacefarers pencils and both of them hated to do so because floating graphite flakes can cause fires in sensitive electronics in zero gravity.

NASA, to cut down on the chance of a fire destroying their multi-million dollar spacecraft and killing their priceless astronauts, invested in insanely expensive mechanical pencils. The pencils were $128.89 each, or a grand total of $4,382.26 for 34.

Man, imagine having to go to the supply sergeant for a box of those every time the major loses a few.

Astronaut Walter Cunningham writes with a space pen during the Apollo 7 mission in 1968.

(NASA)

Taxpayers, predictably, freaked out. They felt like pencils shouldn't cost over $100 — fair enough.

So, NASA went back to cheaper pencils, but remained worried about their spacecraft and astronauts. Russia, in a similar vein, was worried about their cosmonauts.

Then, the Fischer Pen Company came to them with an offer to sell "anti-gravity" pens that could write upside down, under water, and in any temperature that humans could survive. It was the uber pen.

A photo of an Apollo astronaut taking notes in space.

(Project Apollo Archive)

NASA paid a grand total of $2.39 per pen for 400 of them — a total of $956. Russia also bought the pen for the same price per unit (Well, Scientific American thought the cost was $2.39 each. A NASA historian citing old media reports pegged the number at $6 per — still, not millions in either case).

Thus concludes NASA's total sunk costs for the first delivery of pens. They paid $0 in development or research costs. None.

Now, the Fischer Pen Company did spend a lot of money developing the pens — about $1 million, but they're a private company counting on future sales to make up for the development costs.

And that was a sound bet. After all, lots of industries and the military need pens that can write in any situation. Miners, loggers, divers, soldiers, and a ton of other people in other professions need to be able to write in wet environments. So, Fischer would earn their research money back regardless.

So, please, when you want to make fun of the military or the government for wasting money, point to something else. The multi-million dollar space pen is and has always been bupkis.

Maybe point to the anti-aircraft weapon that attacked toilets or the slew of awesome weapons the military investigated but was unable to bring to fruition.