(GD is dead, so sue me.)
I still remember how old I was when I found out Santa wasn't real. Ok, that's a blatant lie - I have no idea when it was, but it seemed a fitting prelude to a story of similar disappointment.
Like many of the random bits of information I've picked up over the years, I believe it was my Dad that first told me the anecdote of the Americans spending a millions of dollars on developing a pen that would work in space, whilst the Russians used a pencil. I laughed when I heard it. It was a perfect example of American bureaucracy lacking any kind common sense whatsoever. There was even a reference to it in one of my favourite TV shows - The West Wing. So... imagine my disappointment when I found out that, like Santa, the whole thing was a myth!
Before I go any further I'd like to apologise; I remember how I felt when I had that particular bubble burst, and I know that I'm probably doing the same thing to a lot of you right now. But - fear not! For like many popular fictional stories (Star Trek, for instance), there was an element of truth to it!
Turns out that early on both American and Russian astronauts and cosmonauts used pencils. Well, come on - what do you think they were writing with before the Super Duper Space Wand? Normal pens don't work in zero-gravity; that's the whole point. They had to be using something! But, if pens dont work in space, and they were already using pencils, then where's the drama?
I'm sure it probably didn't take long to realise that pencils were actually a safety hazard. With all the electrical gizmo's and gadgets they have up there, it doesn't take much to break, well... everything. For starters you have the obvious danger of broken bits of lead flying around. Not so bad until it has 11 times the force of gravity thrusting it straight at your helmet. Then there's all the wood shavings flying about. Speaking of which - here's a development! Apparently, wood catches fire! Like, who'd have thought?!
Well, at least you can see why the Americans thought that they should look in to alternatives. This is where the 'history' starts to become distorted somewhat. Yes, the Americans did spend a stupid amount developing something they could use to write with in space. In 1965, and at a cost of $128.89 a pop, NASA bought in a bundle of 'Mechanical Pencils' from Houston's Tycam Engineering Manufacturing, Inc.. Naturally, upon discovering how much was being spent on mechanical pencils, the American public went tits. Of course, at $128.89 a shout, NASA didn't buy very many. In fact, they only bought 34 (total cost of $4382.26). "Only", heh.
So where did the "millions" figure come from? Well, it actually had nothing to do with either the Americans or the Russians. A chappy called Paul C. Fisher set about inventing a pen that could be used in any and all conditions. His company, the Fisher Pen Company, ploughed $1million in to coming up with what we now recognise as the 'Space Pen'. It was in 1965 (!) that Fisher put a patent on his pen that could write upside-down, in freezing or roasting conditions (down to minus 45.6 degrees celcius or up to 204.4 degrees C), and even underwater. Pretty nifty bit of pen really!
That same year, Fisher offered his AG-7 "Anti-Gravity" pen to NASA. After their embarrassment earlier in the year over the Mechanical Pencil fiasco, they were initially hesitant to invest in new writing technology. They went to town on a sample pen Fisher gave them and studied the hell out of it, before concluding that it was, in fact, quite awesome.
Whereas a normal pen (as in the kind commoners such as you or I use) relies on gravity to push the ink down to the tip of the pen, the AG-7 does not. It uses specially nitrogen-pressurised ink cartridges that forces the ink out in much the same way you or I would spray deoderant after a shower (or instead of one). Instead of spraying, though, the ink is pushed on to a tungsten carbide ball at the pen's tip.
Apparently though, it took 2 years to convince NASA to buy the pen. In 1967 NASA started using the pen in space flights and then in 1968 NASA bought a bulk of them - 400, to be precise.
Ah, so the Russians were still using a pencil? Well yes - for one whole year. Fisher then sold 100 AG-7 pens (and 1000 ink refil cartridges) to the Russians at exactly the same discounted price that NASA got - $2.39 per unit. Yes, that's right; less than two and a half US Dollars for the world's first anti-gravity pen.
So there you have it! Hopefully learning the truth on the matter helps ease the pain of finding out that the legend was just that. Still though, at least the Tooth Fairy's still going strong
Thanks for reading!