Monday, January 26, 2004


Forwarded to me by my most wayward sister, about whom volumes more could be said, who had it forwarded to her from one of my aunts:
When NASA first started sending up astronauts, they quickly discovered that ball-point pens would not work in zero gravity.

To combat this problem, NASA scientists spent a decade and $12 billion developing a pen that writes in zero gravity, upside down, on almost any surface including glass and at temperatures ranging from below freezing to over 300 C.

The Russians used a pencil.
Posted as further evidence toward my general suspicion that large portions of Americans (especially those genetically related to me) both (a) will believe anything about the wasteful spending of Big Government and (b) have no conception of orders of magnitude once it gets above a few million. I wonder if the $12 billion had been changed to $120 billion if it would have made any raised any more suspicions, or if it had been $1.2 trillion or $1.2 zillion. I wonder if attitudes about the spending on the Iraq war would have been different had it been $8.7 billion or $870 billion instead of $87 billion. Indeed, this could be the basis of an intriguing political-psychological experiment.

Interestingly, $12 billion (over five years) is also the sum that Bush proposed to increase the space budget for his plan to send an astrocowboy to Mars. Happy coincidence? Urban legend sites show that this e-mail predates the Bush initiative, so any causal arrow would have to be the other way around: perhaps since the Bush administration seems more or less to be making up its accounting figures for projected spending anyway, maybe this e-mail provided the inspiration for an administration in-joke when deciding on the price tag for the space initiative.

Another factual introjection: the current total annual operating budget for NASA is approximately $15.5 billion, which implies that they must have basically blown all their cash from January through September one year trying to get that pen to work. I bet getting it to write at 300 Celsius was the hardest and most expensive part, especially after having to pay all the wrongful-death suits of pen-testers who immediate burst into flames upon being exposed to that temperature (you thought Fahrenheit 451 was hot--if my math is right, we're talking Fahrenheit 572 here).

In any case, the people who actually make the pen used by the astronauts have posted an irate rebuttal to this e-mail. According to them, as it turns out, not only did the development of the Fisher Space Pen not cost any public tax money, but pencils can actually be quite dangerous things to be lugging around in space.

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