Zero Gravity Bureaucracy -- the Real Story

When NASA first started sending up astronauts, they knew ball-point pens would not work in zero gravity.

Now, the way the joke usually goes, you're told that to combat this problem, NASA scientists spent a decade and millions of dollars developing a pen that writes in zero gravity, upside-down, on almost any surface including glass, and at temperatures ranging from -50 to over 160 degrees.

Meanwhile, the joke goes, the Russians used a pencil.

Yeah, well "ha ha". But Jumbo Joke is different, since we think the truth is even funnier.

What really happened is pencils aren't ideal for space flight, since they're flammable, a broken-off point could be dangerous floating around the cabin, where it could be inhaled by astronauts, and sharpening it would create even more floating debris. (Even a mechanical pencil has the problem with broken off leads, but that's what NASA started with in the first place.)

A private American citizen, Paul C. Fisher, figured out a way to make a pen that would work in zero gravity -- and he did it without any government funding whatever.

Fisher submitted his Fisher Space Pen to NASA for testing. NASA loved Fisher's pen and adopted it in 1965, buying hundreds of them for use in spaceflights. (Dryly, NASA called it the "Data Recording Pen".) The pens are still available commercially today.

Since it would also write upside-down on Earth, regular people loved them too. The Fisher Space Pen Company, which is still based in Nevada, went on to make millions of dollars per year on the invention -- and Fisher retired a millionaire. (He died in 2006 at the age of 93.)

And the funny part? Not only did this brilliant bit of American capitalist ingenuity make Fisher a millionaire, but his pen was also adopted by -- yes! -- Russia's space program.

Posted February 5, 2010

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