I recently acquired a Fisher “Bullet” Space Pen (above), which has rapidly become one of my must-carry-everywhere items. I didn’t buy it because of all the “features” the Innovations catalogue used to get so breathless about – used by astronauts! can write upside down! in space! under water! – but because I wanted a small but good-quality pen I could keep in my trouser pocket, in particular for using with my Hipster PDA. It also has the side benefits of being a good pen and, above all, a gorgeous, tactile object.
(If you’re wondering what a Hipster PDA is, the linked site gives the following explanation:
The Hipster PDA (Parietal Disgorgement Aid) is a fully extensible system for coordinating incoming and outgoing data for any aspect of your life and work. It scales brilliantly, degrades gracefully, supports optional categories and “beaming,” and is configurable to an unlimited number of options. Best of all, the Hipster PDA fits into your hip pocket and costs practically nothing to purchase and maintain.
In other words, it’s a small bundle of 3×5 index cards held together with a clip. Simple, but brilliantly useful for jotting down notes and processing them. But anyway, were we? Oh yes: space pens.)
There is a famous urban myth that does the rounds about how NASA spent [millions][billions][an amount equal to the entire annual GDP of Texas][your figure here] on developing this pen that would work in space, while those crafty Russians saved a fortune by using a pencil. Utter codswallop, of course – the problem that drove the adoption of the space pen was precisely that pencils were unsuitable to zero gravity, because broken leads were so hazardous in that environment. But hey, the truth never got in the way of a good meme.
But the real story of how the Fisher Space Pen came to be developed (by a private business using its own funds, not by NASA) is also interesting: a heartwarming tale of private enterprise and shameless huckstering, related in this article at The Space Review. (HT: 43 Folders.)
The article points out that the urban myth’s appeal lies in its reinforcing of several stereotypes: “the NASA ‘nerdgineers’ who like to redesign the wheel … the government bureaucrats who waste money on stupid things … the crude but practical Russians who lack flash, but still get the job done”, but in fact:
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.