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The Space Pen

There are three (3) project management take aways from a parable I once was given as a nascent project manager.

During the early days of Soviet/U.S space race, NASA spent millions researching a pen that would function normally in zero-G. The Soviets opted for a simpler solution and sent up their cosmonauts with a pencil.

The (first) take away: Don’t use an expensive and elaborate solution when a simple one will suffice.

There’s more to it than that. The environment and the nature of the work performed by the astronauts and cosmonauts was better suited to a pen not a pencil for a few reasons. A broken pencil tip can float off under a console and wedge itself under a button in the control panel. Graphite dust in a zero-G environment is just a hazard, as is a flammable element like wood. What do you do if you need to sharpen the pencil? Whittle it? Take out a sharpener? What happens with the shavings? Finally- The documentation required in the space capsules required non-smudging, non-fading, permanent and precise markings. If you recall the last time you used a pencil on a sheet. Then came back again and wrote more on the sheet. Then returned again later- your hand smudges the previous marking, things get blurry. For crying out loud! Use a pen!

The (second) take away: Use the right tool. Even if it’s more expensive, if it does the job a 1000 times better than the cheap solution, don’t be chintzy.

Dear Mom- Please send Tang and Space Monster repellent. - Love, Buzz.

Dear Mom- Please send Tang and Space Monster repellent.
– Love, Buzz.


The story has become legendary- that is urban legend. There are a few things in the story that didn’t actually happen. First- NASA didn’t spend millions researching the space pen. The project was quickly scrapped after they realized the costs would be prohibitive. The space pen that we know today was through a private venture that then sold the pens to space programs. (picture a mad scientist inventor reaching for the brass ring both product wise and financially). Also- Soviet Space Program ordered a volume of pens to use on their missions shortly after they became available.

The (third) take away: Just because a particular conception is popular, doesn’t mean it’s correct.