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Samantha Putterman
By Samantha Putterman May 21, 2019

No, NASA did not spend over $165 million on a space pen while Russians used pencils

A long-running online myth mocks how much time and money NASA and Congress allegedly spent to develop a space pen that can write in zero gravity and extreme temperatures because the Russians simply "used a pencil."

The post reads, "(When) NASA started sending astronauts into space they quickly discovered that ballpoint pens would not work in zero gravity. To combat this problem Congress approved a program and NASA scientists spent a decade and over $165 million developing a pen that writes in zero gravity, upside down, on almost any surface and at temperatures ranging from below freezing to over 300 Celsius. The Russians used a pencil...Your taxes are due again in April."

The post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)

While the claim makes for a good story, it has been debunked several times over.

According to NASA, both U.S. astronauts and Soviet Union cosmonauts used pencils on their first space missions.

In fact, NASA ordered 34 mechanical pencils from Houston’s Tycam Engineering Manufacturing, Inc., for Project Gemini, the agency’s second human spaceflight program, which flew in 1965 and 1966. The total cost, however, came to $4,382.50 — or $128.89 a pencil.

Public outcry followed, and NASA began searching for a cheaper option for future flights. (NASA also became especially cautious about allowing onboard flammable objects such as pencils after a fire broke out in 1967 on the Apollo 1 test mission, killing three astronauts.)

It was around the same time that Paul C. Fisher and his company, the Fisher Pen Co., designed a ballpoint pen that would operate better in space.

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The company reportedly invested about $1 million in the effort. But none of those funds came from NASA or Congress, according to multiple sources, including NASA and a spokesperson for Fisher’s company, now called Fisher Space Pen. In 1965, Fisher patented the Space Pen, which used a pressurized ink cartridge and could write upside down, underwater, in other liquids and in extreme temperatures ranging from minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Because of the earlier controversy, though, NASA reports in its own account that it was "hesitant in its approach."

After a series of tests, NASA managers agreed to equip astronauts with Fisher’s anti-gravity ballpoint pen and, in 1967, the space agency purchased approximately 400 pens at $6 per unit.

In 1969, the Soviet Union also purchased 100 of Fisher’s pens, and 1,000 ink cartridges, for use in its Soyuz space flights. According to Scientific American, eventually NASA and the Soviet space agency both bought the pens at $2.39 per pen, receiving the same discount for buying  in bulk.

In the 50 years since, both American astronauts and Soviet/Russian cosmonauts have continued to use Fisher’s pens.

Our ruling

An old myth that NASA and Congress spent over "$165 million" to develop the space pen while the Russians simply used pencils has recently resurfaced on the internet.

Initially, both space programs used pencils. Both eventually started to use Fisher’s Space Pen, which was developed and funded with private money, not government money.  

We rate this story False.

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Says NASA spent more than $165 million over 10 years to develop a pen that "writes in zero gravity, upside down" and in extreme temperatures while the "Russians used a pencil instead."
Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Our Sources

Facebook post, May 14, 2019, The Fisher Space Pen, Accessed May 20, 2019

Scientific American, Fact or Fiction?: NASA Spent Millions to Develop a Pen that Would Write in Space, whereas the Soviet Cosmonauts Used a Pencil, Dec. 20, 2006, Fisher Space Pen, Accessed May 20, 2019

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, The Saga of Writing in Space, May 1, 2006

Space Review, The billion-dollar space pen, May 1, 2006

Email interview, Gabriel Reyes spokesperson for Fisher Space Pen, May 21, 2019

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No, NASA did not spend over $165 million on a space pen while Russians used pencils

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