Did you hear the one about how the US government spent millions on R&D for a pen that would work in space while the Russians simply used a pencil? The common origin story can even be found on the back of this dollar store ‘Russian space pen.’ Even the critically acclaimed show ‘The West Wing’ took the bait on the urban legend.
It’s a fun tale about ingenuity and resourcefulness but lamentably untrue.
During the great Space Race of the 20th century, the United States and Russia in fact both used pencils in space.
The United States opted to use mechanical pencils like the one seen below, used in 1962 by astronaut John Glenn (the buckle attached to his knee to keep it in place!)
Both pencils came with their own set of problems. For mechanical pencils, when the lead broke—as it so often does (even for astronauts!)—it would float around and could either get in someone’s eye or find its way into the machinery, perhaps shorting an electronic device. More concerning was that lead is a flammable material in a high-oxygen environment. (See Apollo 1: Fire)
For grease pencils, it was highly smudgy and imprecise. You also had to peel layers of paper which caused waste. And like its mechanical counterpart it was flammable.
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