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Fact Check-NASA did not spend billions on space pens while Russia used pencils

Social media users are resharing old posts that falsely say NASA spent a decade and millions if not billions of dollars of tax-payers’ money developing pens for its astronauts while Russia made do with pencils.

A pen that works in zero gravity, underwater and at extreme temperatures was designed for use in space in the 1960s. Its development was funded by Paul C. Fisher of the Fisher Pen Company of Chicago, Illinois, not by NASA. It is used by both American and Russian astronauts.

Many of the social media posts read: “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 C. The Russians used a pencil …Your taxes are due in April.”

They can be seen here , here and here).

Other variations say the amount NASA spent on the pen was $12 billion (here , here). Shares of the posts in 2021 can be seen here , here , here and here .

This claim has been circulating for more than 20 years and has been debunked many times in the past, as seen here , here , here , here , here and here .

NEED FOR A SPACE PEN

Ordinary ball point pens did not work in space because the ink would not flow by gravity to the ball and the pen leaked if pressure was created in the ink reservoir (here).

NASA used to use pencils, and in 1965 there was controversy over how much they spent on them. For Project Gemini (here), NASA ordered 34 pencils from Tycam Engineering Manufacturing Inc, in Houston, costing a total of $4,382.50 ($128.89 per pencil). At the time many people believed it was a “frivolous expense,” according to the NASA website history.nasa.gov/spacepen.html .

Wooden pencils were also considered a fire hazard, particularly in American spaceships, where the atmosphere at the time was 100% oxygen (here).

NASA INVOLVEMENT

The posts say NASA spent a decade and $165 million or $12 billion developing the Space Pen.

Brian Odom, Acting NASA Chief Historian, told Reuters via email that this is a “myth” that has “circulated plenty over the years.”

“NASA was not involved at all in the development of the pen,” Gabriel Reyes, spokesperson for Fisher Space Pen, told Reuters via email. “It was Paul C. Fisher’s personal commitment to create a pen that would work in zero gravity. He spent over $1 million and about ten years developing the pressurized ink cartridge that allows the pens to function in zero gravity and extreme conditions,” Reyes added.

The pen can write from -30 to 250 degrees Fahrenheit (-35 to 121 Celsius), which is at least 180 degrees Celsius cooler than the social media posts suggest. (www.spacepen.com/about-us.aspx).

Fisher patented the pen in 1966, as seen here , and in 1967 after rigorous tests NASA started to equip Apollo astronauts with them (history.nasa.gov/spacepen.html). In 1968, the pen was used on the Apollo 7 Mission (www.spacepen.com/about-us.aspx).

Reyes shared the original purchase order for NASA’s initial order of 400 pens from Fisher with Reuters, which can be seen ibb.co/SdgLtH2 .

RUSSIA

Russian cosmonaut Sergey Kud-Sverchkov (here) explains from space, in a video here by the Russian space agency Roscosmos, that Soviet astronauts used to use wax pencils but they started to use the Fisher Space Pen shortly after NASA and have been using them ever since. The video, from March 31, 2021, shows him holding and using the pen in space. Kud-Sverchkov shows that the Russian astronauts also use ordinary automatic pencils with a thick core and marker pens, like Sharpies.

Timelines on the Fisher Space Pen website www.spacepen.com/about-us.aspx and the NASA website history.nasa.gov/spacepen.html show that in February 1969, the Soviet Union bought 100 pens for use on its Soyuz flights, and Russia has continued to use the pens ever since.

VERDICT

False. A space pen was developed but it was funded by Paul Fisher of the Fisher Pen Company, not NASA, and it is used by Russians and Americans alike to this day.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our fact-checking work here .

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