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Fisher space pen
The Fisher Space Pen (above) was developed with private money, but soon became part of an urban legend involving an expensive NASA program. (credit: Fisher Space Pen Co.)

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 the 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.

The story of the space pen actually begins with a very expensive pencil.

Urban legends survive because they serve a social purpose. The classic ones, like the guy with the hook who kills the couple in the woods, reinforce morality lessons like don’t park in the woods to have sex. The Million Dollar Space Pen myth reinforces several particular stereotypes, such as the NASA “nerdgineers” who like to redesign the wheel, and the government bureaucrats who waste money on stupid things. Another common stereotype is the crude but practical Russians who lack flash, but still get the job done.

Those stereotypes and themes live on in many ways, such as claims that NASA is incessantly hidebound and bureaucratic, whereas the Russians are simplistic and cheap, but practical. There is some truth to these stereotypes, but naturally the reality is much more complicated and nuanced.

As for the Million Dollar Space Pen, the story actually begins with a very expensive pencil.

Gemini and the space pencil

On March 23, 1965 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 (some sources claim it was a roast beef 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.

Members of the public were outraged at NASA’s profligate spending and naturally they demanded answers from their congressmen. Exactly two years to the day before the flight, Congressman John Wydler, of the Fourth District in New York and a member of the House Committee on Science and Astronautics, wrote a letter to NASA Administrator James Webb (PDF, 1.3 MB) asking for a full investigation of the expensive pencils and an explanation why their high costs were justified. NASA received other letters as well, such as one from the President of Elgin School Supply Company of San Francisco.

NASA officials then had to explain to Congress and people like the president of the Elgin School Supply Company that the pencils were made of lightweight, high strength materials that could be attached to the inside of the spacecraft. The pencil housings had been expanded so that the astronauts could use them while wearing their bulky spacesuit gloves. The writing mechanism inside the housing had been procured from a local office supply house and had cost $1.75 each.

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.

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 public and congressional complaints about the high costs of something as simple as a pencil are not that unusual. Every few years some mini-scandal breaks out when somebody reveals the high cost that the government pays for what seems like a simple object such as a hammer or a coffee machine for an airplane. The reason is that the object is recognizable. Few people understand what a spacecraft solar panel or a gyroscope should cost, and thus will have no idea if the taxpayer is being cheated by an unscrupulous contractor. But what they also do not understand is that in many cases quite ordinary devices can be expensive when they have to be redesigned for special conditions, particularly when they are manufactured in small numbers. Ordinary objects are cheap primarily when they are produced in massive numbers, but when a government agency needs only a few dozen of them designed to unique specifications, they then become specialty objects.

The Fisher Space Pen

Several years after the Molly Brown flight, and after NASA instituted much stricter rules carrying personal items aboard spacecraft, the curse of the writing instruments arose once again.

In the mid-1960s Paul Fisher of the Fisher Pen Company developed the Space Pen. He did this on his own, without prompting by NASA and without NASA money. What he did want from NASA was publicity, and to this end he managed to get his congressman to insert a promotional history of his Space Pen into the Congressional Record in March 1966. Fisher then contacted NASA and sought their review of promotional literature about the Space Pen.

A NASA official evaluated the advertising copy for the Space Pen and noted that the company “is not now and has never been under contract to NASA – [Manned Spacecraft Center] for the supply of any writing instrument to be used in a manned spacecraft.” However, a different Fisher pen, known as the AG-7 pen, was under consideration for carrying aboard American spacecraft.

What various documents about the Space Pen demonstrate is that NASA did not develop the Space Pen and initially did not even purchase it.

Over two months after Fisher first contacted NASA, the space agency replied and disapproved his advertising, (PDF, 0.6 MB) which the agency called “quite misleading.” NASA’s procurement office was at the time purchasing Fisher’s AG-7 pens at a cost of $4 apiece (still a significant amount of money in 1967), and was not buying the Space Pen, which cost $1.98.

What various documents about the Space Pen demonstrate is that NASA did not develop the Space Pen and initially did not even purchase it. We do not know how much Fisher Pen spent to develop the Space Pen, but it was private money, not government money.

To Fisher’s credit, his company produced a good pen. Within a few years NASA was indeed buying the Space Pen, which NASA called the “Data Recording Pen”, (PDF, 0.2 MB) in several “configurations” designated -204, -207 and -208. The pen was carried aboard Apollo and Skylab missions. At that point, Fisher could honestly claim that the Space Pen flew in space and was used by American astronauts. Naturally, that became a key part of Fisher’s advertising campaign.

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.