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I encountered this picture of the "Russian space pen" from the MIT Museum gift shop

myth

pen

When NASA first started sending astronauts into space, they realized that the ball-point pen would not work at zero gravity.

A million dollar investment and two years of tests resulted in a pen that could write in space, upside down, on almost any surface and at temperatures ranging from below freezing to over 300°C

When confronted with the same problem, the Russians used a pencil.

This anecdote was mentioned in the episode We killed Yamamoto of The West Wing as well as many emails.

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    That's one expensive pencil – gerrit Nov 5 '12 at 21:09
  • @gerrit Obviously the red paint on the pencil and red ink on the package are more costly to manufacture.... ;-) – RBerteig Nov 5 '12 at 23:15
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    For records, a reference to this scepticism is also made in the film 3 Idiots. – Vikrant Chaudhary Nov 6 '12 at 0:04
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    +1 for the 3 idiots :P. Yup, he answers the reasoning behind pen/pencil quite well also, if in a hot headed manner . – Karthik T Nov 6 '12 at 2:43
  • @glorfindel the new image doesn't have enough resolution to be readable. – Andrew Grimm Jan 9 at 8:36
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This is NOT TRUE.

NASA, Snopes, Scientific American and many other sources on the internet refuted the claim. Here is a summary of the story, taken mainly from Scientific American:

At first both the USSR space program and NASA used pencils for their missions:

Originally, NASA astronauts, like the Soviet cosmonauts, used pencils, according to NASA historians. In fact, NASA ordered 34 mechanical pencils from Houston's Tycam Engineering Manufacturing, Inc., in 1965. They paid $4,382.50 or $128.89 per pencil.

However, pencils are not really good for a space mission, as they are highly flammable in a rich oxygen environment, and can break off the tip which can hurt both astronauts and the equipment:

Pencils may not have been the best choice anyway. The tips flaked and broke off, drifting in microgravity where they could potentially harm an astronaut or equipment. And pencils are flammable--a quality NASA wanted to avoid in onboard objects after the Apollo 1 fire.

The Fisher Pen Company developed a space pen by themselves at an investment of 1 million dollars, and only after development came to NASA to propose the pen, and NASA tested it for 2 years to make sure it stands up to their standards:

Paul C. Fisher and his company, the Fisher Pen Company, reportedly invested $1 million to create what is now commonly known as the space pen. None of this investment money came from NASA's coffers--the agency only became involved after the pen was dreamed into existence. In 1965 Fisher patented a pen that could write upside-down, in frigid or roasting conditions ...

That same year, Fisher offered the AG-7 "Anti-Gravity" Space Pen to NASA. Because of the earlier mechanical pencil fiasco, NASA was hesitant. But, after testing the space pen intensively, the agency decided to use it on spaceflights beginning in 1967.

Since then and until this day, both Russian and American space crew have been using the Fisher company antigravity pen, and it's even offered for sale for the general public:

According to an Associated Press report from February 1968, NASA ordered 400 of Fisher's antigravity ballpoint pens for the Apollo program. A year later, the Soviet Union ordered 100 pens and 1,000 ink cartridges to use on their Soyuz space missions, said the United Press International. The AP later noted that both NASA and the Soviet space agency received the same 40 percent discount for buying their pens in bulk. They both paid $2.39 per pen instead of $3.98.

...

Since the late 1960s American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts have used Fisher's pens. In fact, Fisher has created a whole line of space pens. A newer pen, called the Shuttle Pen, was used on NASA's space shuttles and on the Russian space station, Mir.

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    For funsies, the Space Pen works because the ink is more of a solid in a container that also holds compressed Nitrogen. As the ink is used, the pressure of the Nitrogen keeps the tip of the pen covered. The ball "shaves" off the layer of ink and uses that to write with. – MCM Nov 5 '12 at 20:41
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    $128.89 per pencil !!!! – NimChimpsky Nov 6 '12 at 13:23
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    My (cynical) guess would be that the breakdown was $4380 federal procurement overhead (competitive bid, cost analysis, equal opportunity check, etc); and $2.50 for the actual purchase. – Dan Neely Nov 6 '12 at 14:28
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    How does this make the story "not true"? There was a $1,000,000 investment (the story doesn't say it's by NASA), and two years of tests. And indeed, the Russians used a pencil (even if they switched to the pens at the same time as NASA.) In fact, your answer seems to confirm that everything in the story is factually accurate (although perhaps misleading, for comedic purposes.) – Nick Matteo Mar 3 '14 at 20:10
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    @kundor A. the claim implies that NASA didn't think of using a pencil. B. it implies that the Russians didn't adopt the pen. C. it implies that NASA commissioned the pen and paid for its development, and not that the pen was adopted by NASA after it was invented by a private firm. While the claim doesn't state wrong facts, it does tell a "lie of omission". Also, it calls the pencil "Russian Space Pen", even though the USSR space program adopted the USA made pens as soon as they were available, so a russian space pen is no diffrent than a NASA (American) space pen. – SIMEL Mar 3 '14 at 21:52

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