Oh, you've heard the yarn, don't say you haven't -- "NASA spent millions to develop a space pen; the Russians just use pencils."
It's a cute story and when you look at the two space programs, it seems to fit -- aside from Buran, the Russians have really only had the one man-rated booster design, significantly improved over the years, step by step while NASA's had half a dozen, fiddled with, flown and thrown away; NASA's ISS toolkit has a nice little machinist's hammer neatly tucked away but the Russians stuck an eight-pound sledge (with a handle ending in a pick!) in theirs.*
But the truth is better, stranger and makes more sense: to begin with, everyone took pencils into space. NASA even tried mechanical pencils. The leads broke off and got into things. Shavings from sharpening a wooden pencil threatened to end up where they'd do the most harm. Cosmonauts messed with grease pencils...and a guy named Paul C. Fisher decided there had to be a better way. He was already in the pen business, having invented the universal ballpoint refill, perhaps a little shadowed by big names like Scheaffer and Parker, so he dug in and worked at it until he had an all-metal, pressurized-ink pen; even the thixotropic ink has a flash point around 200° C, an important safety feature, especially in the pure-oxygen atmospheres used in U.S. spacecraft until the Apollo One tragedy.
Mr. Fisher never received a dime of government money to develop his pen -- and once it was on the market, even the Russian space program started using them!
The moral of the story? "Don't believe everything you hear," and, "Simple isn't always the best way to go." I shudder to think what a pure-oxy pencil fire might look like but it'd give you a whole new appreciation for the common #2.
And you're not going to forget Paul C. Fisher anytime soon, either.
* If you can only have two hammers, that's not a bad set of choices -- so it's a good thing both space programs are involved.
YANKEE RADIO TOOL KIT, #106
4 weeks ago