Thursday, 30 September 2004

Space pens are useful

I really hate the hooey that makes up urban legends. Something about people's credulity when it comes to these overly pat stories really aggravates me. I especially hate it when a supposedly distinguished speaker goes up on stage, gets paid thousands of dollars, and delivers a completely false story to illustrate his or her point. If you're that smart, why don't you check out your anecdotes? So Snopes.com has been a godsend, and it's nice to check in from time to time to debunk whatever makes the rounds on e-mails. (Coke doesn't dissolve teeth, for one.) Was thinking about this because someone mentioned the "NASA spent $1.5 million to develop a pen that would work in space, while the Russians used a pencil" story. Sounded like complete bullplop to me, so I checked it up, and it was nice to have it affirmed that in real life what happened was the other way around. Both Americans and Russians were using pencils, but pencil lead could cause a host of problems in space, so an enterprising guy developed (at his own expense) a pen that would eliminate these problems:
... leads sometimes broke and became a hazard by floating in the [capsule's] atmosphere where there was no gravity. They could float into an eye or nose or cause a short in an electrical device. In addition, both the lead and the wood of the pencil could burn rapidly in the pure oxygen atmosphere. Paul Fisher realized the astronauts needed a safer and more dependable writing instrument, so in July 1965 he developed the pressurised ball pen ... (Link)
Sure, this version of the story doesn't teach you any "moral" about trying too hard to be high-tech instead of going for the simplest solution. But it's the truth. Life isn't about morals, it isn't neat - it just is.



That's what I love about the first day of Chinese New Year. :)


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