One of the more amusing urban legends relates to the space pen. According to the story, during the space race back in the 1960’s, NASA needed a pen that would write in the zero gravity of space. Without gravity, the pens simply wouldn’t function—think about what happens when you try to write with a pen upside down. So NASA gathered their best engineers and put them to work. After hundreds of hours and millions of dollars, they finally came up with a solution: the “Space Pen.”
The Russians, of course, had a similar problem with pens not writing in zero gravity. They pondered a few moments and hit on a solution: they would use pencils in orbit instead.
It’s an amusing story which feeds our sense that the government can’t ever do anything simple, lacks basic common sense, and if it can waste money, it will. Unfortunately for the humor and message of the story, nothing like this ever happened. In reality, the Fisher Pen Company back in 1965 decided to develop what they eventually called the Space Pen. It took them awhile, and an unknown amount of the company’s money, but they finally came up with a pressurized pen that would work upside down.. They began selling them to the public for one dollar and ninety-eight cents. Then the contacted NASA to see if they were interested in using the pens, the Fisher Pen Company’s hope being that they could then advertize their new writing instrument as “used by NASA” and that had it had “actually flown in space.”
NASA turned them down flat and vetoed all their advertising hopes. NASA wanted nothing to do with the Fisher Space Pen. Throughout the Mercury and Gemini programs which preceded the Apollo program, NASA’s astronauts, like their Russian counterparts, simply used pencils. They worked just great.
Eventually, however, , during later Apollo and Skylab missions NASA did decide to buy and use some of the Fisher pens, since they discovered they worked in the cold of space; being metal, they would retain their heat for awhile and keep working. Also, NASA started worrying about the dangers associated with bits of pencil lead floating around in the cabin if a pencil point happened to snap. So the Fisher Pen Company finally got the advertising campaign they had hoped for. But, although NASA did finally wind up using pens in space, they got them cheap, over the counter, and didn’t pay a cent for their development.
One of the things that gets taxpayers riled are the seemingly excessive prices for common things that the space program or the military uses, such as toilet seats. On the surface, it seems nonsensical to pay hundreds of dollars for something that anyone could pick up at a hardware store for twenty bucks. But there is a reason that things can wind up costing the government more than you or I would ever spend.
The reason that many consumer items are as cheap as they are is because they are produced in enormous quantities. The military, by contrast, may need a very specialized item, designed to fit in a specific sized space, and they only need two dozen of them. Two dozen handmade specially designed parts are going to cost way more than their mass produced generic counterparts.
It happens with the cost of military aircraft and other military machines, too. The B-2 stealth bomber has been criticized for costing a billion dollars per aircraft. Of course, that billion dollar price estimate includes the years of research and development that preceded it’s manufacture. Once the things started coming off the assembly line, their per unit cost was really not that much more than for any other aircraft. The workers on Northrop’s assemblyline were not being paid any differently than such workers anywhere else in the aircraft building industry. And then Congress decided to let them only build about twenty-two of the things. Rather short-sighted, given that the bulk of the cost of the B-2 had already been spent by that time. Building the things was not where the majority of the expense had been.
Same thing happens with spaceships. NASA ordered a total of only five space shuttles. They didn’t exactly order in bulk, so they didn’t get the bulk rate. As always, most of the expense of making spaceships came from the research and design; the people that built them were paid the same hourly wage that Boeing was paying people to build 747s. But 747s cost a lot less than Space Shuttles, simply because Boeing makes hundreds of them. Imagine how much a car would cost if GM only made five every few years.