Why Do Astronauts Use Space Pens Instead of Pencils?

by Alex Carter

It's often said that NASA spent millions of dollars developing a pen that could write in zero gravity, while the Russians just used pencils. It was a warning about looking for a high-tech solution to a mundane problem, of American excess vs. Russian sensibility.

It's also entirely false.

To understand why NASA was so keen on a workable space pen, you have to understand that the pencil is not suited for space travel. The problem is that they have a habit of breaking, shattering, and leaving graphite dust behind. The wood, too, can make it a serious fire risk in the pressurized, oxygen-rich capsule. All of these common issues become life-threatening hazards in space.

Still, there were attempts to bring pencils into space. In 1965, the agency famously ordered 34 specially designed mechanical pencils in hopes of finding the perfect writing tool for astronauts. But at $128 each, they weren't exactly cheap, and it only got worse when the public got wind of the price. Thankfully, an alternative was not too far behind.

Astronaut Walt Cunningham, pilot of the Apollo 7 mission, uses the Fisher Space Pen while in flight.
Astronaut Walt Cunningham, pilot of the Apollo 7 mission, uses the Fisher Space Pen while in flight.
NASA

The Space Pen was invented by Paul Fisher, head of Fisher Pen Company. Unlike a typical pen, the Fisher Space Pen uses compressed nitrogen to force ink out of the nozzle, instead of using gravity to make it flow. This made it the ideal device for writing in space, while upside down, or submerged underwater. It wrote crisp and clean, without the safety concerns of a pencil.

Fisher contacted NASA to give his pens a try in 1965 and in 1967, after months of testing, they were impressed enough to bulk buy 400 of them for future missions. Contrary to those urban legends, NASA didn't commission the pen or contribute any funding to it. The Soviets soon ditched their grease pencils and were eventually buying the same Fisher pens as NASA, too. The price? After a 40 percent discount from Fisher, both space agencies were paying $2.39 a pen.

The Fisher Space Pens made their debut in 1968 on the Apollo 7 mission and have been involved in all manned missions since.

So, the short reason is that astronauts only used pencils when they were waiting for something better to come along. As soon as it did, they switched and never looked back. Even the Russians thought it was a good idea.

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This Innovative Cutting Board Takes the Mess Out of Meal Prep

There's no way any of these ingredients will end up on the floor.
There's no way any of these ingredients will end up on the floor.
TidyBoard, Kickstarter

Transferring food from the cutting board to the bowl—or scraps to the compost bin—can get a little messy, especially if you’re dealing with something that has a tendency to roll off the board, spill juice everywhere, or both (looking at you, cherry tomatoes).

The TidyBoard, available on Kickstarter, is a cutting board with attached containers that you can sweep your ingredients right into, taking the mess out of meal prep and saving you some counter space in the process. The board itself is 15 inches by 20 inches, and the container that fits in its empty slot is 14 inches long, 5.75 inches wide, and more than 4 inches deep. Two smaller containers fit inside the large one, making it easy to separate your ingredients.

Though the 4-pound board hangs off the edge of your counter, good old-fashioned physics will keep it from tipping off—as long as whatever you’re piling into the containers doesn’t exceed 9 pounds. It also comes with a second set of containers that work as strainers, so you can position the TidyBoard over the edge of your sink and drain excess water or juice from your ingredients as you go.

You can store food in the smaller containers, which have matching lids; and since they’re all made of BPA-free silicone, feel free to pop them in the microwave. (Remove the small stopper on top of the lid first for a built-in steaming hole.)

tidyboard storage containers
They also come in gray, if teal isn't your thing.
TidyBoard

Not only does the bamboo-made TidyBoard repel bacteria, it also won’t dull your knives or let strong odors seep into it. In short, it’s an opportunity to make cutting, cleaning, storing, and eating all easier, neater, and more efficient. Prices start at $79, and it’s expected to ship by October 2020—you can find out more details and order yours on Kickstarter.

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Do Politicians Need a Musician's Permission to Play One of Their Songs at a Campaign Event?

Dyana Wing So, Unsplash
Dyana Wing So, Unsplash

Whether it’s the songwriter, the performer, or the recording label, someone always owns the rights to a song. Whether or not one needs permission to play that song depends a lot on the circumstances. A DJ at a wedding doesn’t need to worry about any consequences for playing Peter Gabriel's “In Your Eyes” or The Righteous Brothers's “Unchained Melody.” Sports arenas can pipe in the Rolling Stones's “Start Me Up” without a release.

In the world of politics, however, campaigns and rallies that rely on music to stir up crowds often come under fire for unauthorized use. What’s the reason?

According to Rolling Stone, it’s not typically an issue over copyright, though using a song without permission is technically copyright infringement. If a song is played in a public venue like a stadium or arena that has a public performance license, no permission is needed. The license is typically granted through a songwriters’ association like the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) or Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI). Even so, ASCAP still recommends [PDF] that political campaigns seek out permission from the musicians or songwriters, as these licenses exclude music played during conventions or campaign events.

Additionally, most artists aren’t concerned with their music being played at a wedding or sporting event. It is, after all, a form of free publicity and exposure, and no one is really making any substantial amount of money from their work. But the political realm is different. Because artists might have differing political beliefs than a candidate using their music, they sometimes grow concerned that use of their material might be construed as an endorsement.

That’s when artists can begin to make noise about wanting politicians to stop playing their music. In this instance, they can object on the basis of their Right of Publicity—a legal argument that covers how their image is portrayed. They can make the assertion that use of their work infringes on their right to not be associated with a subject they find objectionable. Other arguments can be raised through the Lanham Act, which covers trademark confusion (or a False Endorsement), which addresses the implication an artist is endorsing a political message if their music is used.

In 2008, for example, Jackson Browne won a lawsuit against John McCain and the national and Ohio GOP when the McCain campaign used Browne’s song “Running on Empty” in ads attacking Barack Obama over gas conservation.

Even if the musician isn’t supportive of a candidate, it’s not always advisable to take such action. A contentious legal confrontation can often result in more publicity than if a musician simply let the campaign continue uninterrupted. Other times, recording artists feel strongly enough about distancing themselves from a message they disagree with that they’ll take whatever steps are necessary.

The bottom line? More often than not, a song played during a campaign isn’t there because an artist or label gave their permission. And unless the artist strenuously objects to the campaign message and is willing to get into a legal tussle, they probably can’t do a whole lot to stop it.

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