Another Neil deGrasse Tyson bollocksed up science anecdote, as emailed to me by PJM’s own David Steinberg:
“During the heat of the space race in the 1960s, the US National Aeronautics and Space Administration decided it needed a ballpoint pen to write in the zero gravity confines of its space capsules. After considerable research and development, the Astronaut Pen was developed at a cost of approximately $1 million US. The pen worked and also enjoyed some modest success as a novelty item back here on earth. The Soviet Union, faced with the same problem, used a pencil.”
It certainly sounds like Tyson is implying that NASA put US taxpayers on the hook for [insert Dr. Evil voice] one meeeeeeelion dollars rather than using a cheap, simple pencil. Except that according to Tyson’s fellow leftists at Snopes.com, the Fisher company designed their famous Space Pen with a pressurized ink cartridge (that once found itself a running gag in a classic Seinfeld episode) entirely on their own, and then presented it to NASA, which the space agency then purchased from Fisher at a small fee per pen. And as Snopes notes, it’s not necessarily a good thing to be using a pencil in the confined space of a zero-G space capsule in the first place:
Both U.S. astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts initially used pencils on space flights, but those writing instruments were not ideal: pencil tips can flake and break off, and having such objects floating around space capsules in near-zero gravity posed a potential harm to astronauts and equipment. (As well, after the fatal Apollo 1 fire in 1967, NASA was anxious to avoid having astronauts carry flammable objects such as pencils onboard with them.)When the solution of providing astronauts with a ballpoint pen that would work under weightless conditions and extreme temperatures came about, though, it wasn’t because NASA had thrown hundreds of thousands of dollars (inflated to $12 billion in the latest iterations of this tale) in research and development money at the problem. The “space pen” that has since become famous through its use by astronauts was developed independently by Paul C. Fisher of the Fisher Pen Co., who spent his own money on the project and, once he perfected his AG-7 “Anti-Gravity” Space Pen, offered it to NASA. After that agency tested and approved the pen’s suitability for use in space flights, they purchased a number of the instruments from Fisher for a modest price.
Click over to Snopes for the Fisher company’s own telling of the story, which notes that it was Fisher who spent one million, not NASA. “In December 1967 he sold 400 Fisher Space Pens to NASA for $2.95 each,” equaling $1180 of taxpayer money, not a million.
(And yes, I’m not ashamed to admit that I’ve purchased a few Space Pens myself over the years, mostly from the Museum of Modern Art gift store in New York. OK, I’m slightly ashamed. Don’t judge me!)