Digilabs Technologies Blog

Archive for August 2009

When NASA first started sending up astronauts, they discovered that ball-point pens would not work in zero gravity. However, they still needed a way to write. To combat this problem, NASA scientists went to work, developing a pen that writes in zero gravity. A decade and $12 million later, they came up with a pen that writes in zero gravity, upside down, underwater, on almost any surface including glass and at temperatures ranging from below freezing to over 300C.

When confronted with the same problem, the Russians used a pencil.

This is, by the way, am urban legend. Didn’t happen. If you want to know what did happen you’ll have to read to the end of the post.

Despite that, everybody likes the story. We all like stories that demonstrate the government waste and bureaucratic stupidity. But I brought it for a different reason. When I’ve first heard this story, years back in school, I’ve seen something else in it. Naturally, I didn’t know to much about governments then…

I’ve seen it is something else. That is, our tendency to think about solutions to problems, and not about the problems themselves. My high school math teacher used to say that understanding the solutions is 1/2 the way to the answer. Over the years I learned to appreciate this lesson, although I think he under estimated it. I think understanding the problem is more like 3/4 of the solution.

What is the difference between the two? Imagine the year is 1969. You are a NASA engineer, and your boss came you with a problem: “We found that ball-point pens would not work in zero gravity, can you build me a pen that can write in space?”. What are you going to do? You will go to work to create a pen that can write in zero gravity. And being a brilliant NASA engineer, working with other brilliant engineers, what else can you do? You will come up with a space pen.

The problem is that once your boss changed the problem definition from “how can we keep notes in space” to “how do I get a pen to write in zero gravity” he also, without noticing, changed the problem. He already solved it to say “we will use a pen” and reduced it to a mechanical questions of building this pen. You see, the problem “how can we keep notes in space” can be answered in many different ways, where pen is only one of them. What about a pencil, a laptop (okay, they didn’t have those then, but maybe this is what they needed to develop?), an iPhone, a piece of caulk, using copy paper, and you can come up with another 10 ways if you put your mind to it. Once you reduced the problem to “how do I get a pen to write in zero gravity” we are left with a mechanical question of “how to build a space pen”, which, by the way, engineers like, but might have nothing or little to do with the original problem of taking notes in space. So you end up with a space pen.

In my job I do get customer feedback, and often, it involves suggestions. For me, when I get a suggestion, I always ask what are you are trying to solve and why? Some people take it as an offense. After all, I am the customer, I know what I am talking about, and as the customer, I am always right. I don’t question all of that. What I question is something else. Since most often than not, the “problem” is defined already as a solution, I want to make sure I understand the problem well enough to see if the proposed solution is the right one. In other words, I don’t question the need to take notes in space. I want to verify what is it behind the “how do I get a pen to write in zero gravity” problem. I want to uncover the real problem that needs solving so I end up with the pencil and not the space pen.

So next time when you feel I grill you with those detailed questions that seem to go nowhere and focus around small details, (such as how do you envision this zero gravity pen will be used? when will they use it? Who will use? Does it have to be ink? What will they use it for? Why do you want it…), cut me some slack. It’s not you I question. It is me trying to understand.

Okay, so what is the real space pen story? As I said, the story above is a myth. The space pen is real, in use until today, and does solve some real problems that pencil have.  The space pen was developed by Paul Fisher, the founder of the Fisher pen company, who also created his “bullet pen”  in the 1940’s, which became one of the best-selling pens of the Twentieth Century. Fisher perfected a pen that was sealed with pressure inside of the cartridge that made the ink to flow regardless of gravity. It took him 2 years and $2 million to develop. NASA chose the pen in 1967 for use by Apollo astronauts and it’s been a part of space travel ever since. For the Apollo mission, NASA had purchased 400 pens at $6 each. Prior to 1967, there were no pens that worked in space so there were pencils used. NASA preferred the use of the pen as there were concerned about pencil dust floating around as well as fears that if the tip of a pencil broke off and drifted into the electronics. For the same reasons, the Russians also use the space pen.

To learn about the space pen technology click here. Yes, the space pen is still around. You can even buy on this site a space pen for around $25.