The Russians Used Pencils: Truth & Truthiness in Copywriting

On Facebook a friend recently posted a photo of the packaging of a pencil that can be purchased from the MIT Museum gift shop. The packaging tells the story of how the two great competitors in the space race of the 1960s and 1970s approached the difficulties of writing in orbit. It's a story that's been doing the rounds for many many years now, but I'll reproduce it here:

When NASA first started sending astronauts into space, they realised that the ball-point pen would not work in zero gravity.

A million dollar investment and two years of tests resulted in a pen that could write in space upside down, on almost any surface and at temperatures ranging from below freezing to over 300'C.

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

Funny right? As well as being funny it's absolutely true. As well as being absolutely true its utterly misleading and a wonderful example of how it's possible to be 100% truthful and 100% dishonest at the same time through the power of copy editing.

Before going into the full story, let's look at what this copy is trying to tell us:

  1. NASA realised that writing in zero gravity with a standard ball-point pen wouldn't work
  2. NASA then spent a million dollars and took two years to produce a pen that would work in a wide range of extreme conditions
  3. The Soviet Union, meeting the same problem, used pencils
  4. Those NASA guys are pretty dumb

So let's look at the same text, this time with some missing information inserted. 

When NASA first started sending astronauts into space, they realised that the ball-point pen would not work in zero gravity. They began a research project to develop a space pen but quickly abandoned it on cost grounds and instead issued pencils to astronauts, even though these weren't an ideal solution (broken pencil tips + graphite dust + zero gravity = real problems for delicate electronics in space).

The Fisher Pen company, seeing an opportunity, began their own space pen project. Their million dollar investment and two years of tests resulted in a pen that could write in space upside down, on almost any surface and at temperatures ranging from below freezing to over 300'C.

In 1965 after completing their development, Fisher asked NASA to try the pen out. NASA bought 400 of the new pens for $6 each and started using them on Apollo missions.

When confronted with the same problem, the Russians initially used a pencil. In 1969 however they bought 100 Fisher Space Pens for use in all of their future missions.

Pretty different story right?

Even with the overwhelming historical evidence of the massive economic incompetence of the communist system staring them in the face most people, on hearing the "NASA idiots, Russians clever" story, will have believed it. 

Why? Because the urban legend view is fun, plays to our dislike of dumb bureaucracies (which many believe NASA has become now, even if it wasn't in the 60s) and has a high enough percentage of truthiness to pass a casual glance at the background evidence.

Entertainment beats unvarnished truth, even at MIT.