Why Do Astronauts Use Space Pens Instead of Pencils?

by Alex Carter

It's often said that NASA spent millions of dollars developing a pen that could write in zero gravity, while the Russians just used pencils. It was a warning about looking for a high-tech solution to a mundane problem, of American excess vs. Russian sensibility.

It's also entirely false.

To understand why NASA was so keen on a workable space pen, you have to understand that the pencil is not suited for space travel. The problem is that they have a habit of breaking, shattering, and leaving graphite dust behind. The wood, too, can make it a serious fire risk in the pressurized, oxygen-rich capsule. All of these common issues become life-threatening hazards in space.

Still, there were attempts to bring pencils into space. In 1965, the agency famously ordered 34 specially designed mechanical pencils in hopes of finding the perfect writing tool for astronauts. But at $128 each, they weren't exactly cheap, and it only got worse when the public got wind of the price. Thankfully, an alternative was not too far behind.

Astronaut Walt Cunningham, pilot of the Apollo 7 mission, uses the Fisher Space Pen while in flight.
Astronaut Walt Cunningham, pilot of the Apollo 7 mission, uses the Fisher Space Pen while in flight.
NASA

The Space Pen was invented by Paul Fisher, head of Fisher Pen Company. Unlike a typical pen, the Fisher Space Pen uses compressed nitrogen to force ink out of the nozzle, instead of using gravity to make it flow. This made it the ideal device for writing in space, while upside down, or submerged underwater. It wrote crisp and clean, without the safety concerns of a pencil.

Fisher contacted NASA to give his pens a try in 1965 and in 1967, after months of testing, they were impressed enough to bulk buy 400 of them for future missions. Contrary to those urban legends, NASA didn't commission the pen or contribute any funding to it. The Soviets soon ditched their grease pencils and were eventually buying the same Fisher pens as NASA, too. The price? After a 40 percent discount from Fisher, both space agencies were paying $2.39 a pen.

The Fisher Space Pens made their debut in 1968 on the Apollo 7 mission and have been involved in all manned missions since.

So, the short reason is that astronauts only used pencils when they were waiting for something better to come along. As soon as it did, they switched and never looked back. Even the Russians thought it was a good idea.

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Why Do So Many News Anchors Sound Alike?

News anchors have mastered the art of being linguistically neutral.
News anchors have mastered the art of being linguistically neutral.
iofoto/iStock via Getty Images

No matter which channel you tune into or what local broadcast you receive, news anchors share one common trait beyond professional attire and perfect hair. They tend to sound exactly the same, from their cadence to enunciation to a completely curious lack of a regional accent. How does that happen?

Broadcasters didn’t always sound so geographically neutral. In the early part of the 20th century, many radio personalities and performers adopted what was known as a Mid-Atlantic accent, or a blend of mannered British and the East Coast dialect of the United States. This polished, proper method of speaking was popular in Hollywood movies of the 1930s and on radio because it signaled some kind of upper-class education and erudition. Thanks to America’s infatuation with England, sounding even vaguely British made people sound intelligent. Pundits like William F. Buckley Jr. carried the Mid-Atlantic torch even as it fell out of favor in entertainment.

The more contemporary practice of sounding linguistically neutral is often referred to as having a General American accent—which is a bit misleading, since there’s really not much of an accent at all. Also referred to as Standard American, Broadcast English, or Network English, General American was a term first used in the 1920s and '30s by linguists who wanted to isolate a more widespread accent than the New England or Southern dialects. The scholar George Philip Krapp used the phrase in his 1925 book The English Language in America; linguist John Kenyon referred to it in his 1930 title American Pronunciation, where he insisted that 90 million Americans spoke General American.

As the century wore on, a wider range of regional accents were recognized, and it became almost impossible to generalize between New England, Southern, and General American. Though some linguists disagree on the definition of General American, it’s still largely considered a speaking voice that lacks regional flair.

So why do news anchors rely on it? One of the biggest reasons is to keep their employment opportunities open. Local anchors who deliver the nightly news for affiliate stations are often vagabonds, taking jobs across the country, and those different networks prefer a General American accent. If an anchor hailing from the South committed to delivering the day’s top stories in a Southern accent, for example, it’s not likely a New York station would feel viewers could warm to them. Likewise, a Brooklyn accent might sound peculiar when Los Angeles residents want a rundown of local headlines.

But an accent is only a portion of a broadcaster’s delivery. At broadcasting schools, television journalists are trained to speak at a moderate speed and enunciate each word clearly. (Whether they realize it or not, young broadcasters may also start out emulating their news anchor heroes who had impeccable diction, like Walter Cronkite or Ted Koppel.) No letters are dropped. Sentences are composed for ease of reading off a teleprompter.

Plain speaking also needs to fit whatever footage is being shown while the anchor is talking. Uneven modulation could be distracting, though some anchors do choose to emphasize words by drawing them out (“muur-der”) or adopt a more somber tone when reporting on tragic events.

Some anchors have also reported being more careful with their speech because broadcast microphones are often unforgiving. Words beginning with P tend to pop, for example. Broadcasting school drills out the kind of casual and conversational voice that doesn’t translate well to a newscast.

Of course, some linguists believe there’s no such thing as being totally free of an accent. A Southerner trying to remove any trace of a drawl is going to sound different than someone from New England attempting to do the same. We may not notice simply because humans aren’t that great at recognizing more subtle accents, especially our own. Broadcasters may sound alike in large part because they all enunciate and attempt to achieve articulatory precision. Few anchors will say “dubya.” They will say “double-you.” But that occasional “dubya” is what makes speech patterns sound different.

And that’s all the news we have today.

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Why Does the Queen Have Two Birthdays?

Toby Melville, WPA Pool/Getty Images
Toby Melville, WPA Pool/Getty Images

On April 21, 2020 Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will turn 94 years old. To mark the occasion, there are usually a series of gun salutes around London: a 41 gun salute in Hyde Park, a 21 gun salute in Windsor Great Park, and a 62 gun salute at the Tower of London. For the most part, the monarch celebrates her big day privately. But in June, Her Majesty typically parades through London as part of an opulent birthday celebration known as Trooping the Colour (though this year's fête has been cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic).

Queen Elizabeth, like many British monarchs before her, has two birthdays: the actual anniversary of the day she was born, and a separate day that is labeled her "official" birthday (usually the second Saturday in June). Why? Because April 21 is usually too cold for a proper parade.

The tradition started in 1748, with King George II, who had the misfortune of being born in chilly November. Rather than have his subjects risk catching colds, he combined his birthday celebration with the Trooping the Colour.

The parade itself had been part of British culture for almost a century by that time. At first it was strictly a military event, at which regiments displayed their flags—or colours—so that soldiers could familiarize themselves. But George was known as a formidable general after having led troops at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743, so the military celebration seemed a fitting occasion onto which to graft his warm-weather birthday. Edward VII, who also had a November birthday, was the first to standardize the June Trooping the Colour and launched a tradition of a monarchical review of the troops that drew crowds of onlookers.

Even now, the date of the "official" birthday varies year to year. For the first seven years of her reign, Elizabeth II held her official birthday on a Thursday but has since switched over to Saturdays. And while the date is tied to the Trooping the Colour in the UK, Commonwealth nations around the world have their own criteria, which generally involve recognizing it as a public holiday.

Australia started recognizing an official birthday back in 1788, and all the provinces (save one) observe the Queen's Birthday on the second Monday in June, with Western Australia holding its celebrations on the last Monday of September or the first Monday of October.

In Canada, the official birthday has been set to align with the actual birth date of Queen Victoria—May 24, 1819—since 1845, and as such they celebrate so-called Victoria Day on May 24 or the Monday before.

In New Zealand, it's the first Monday in June, and in the Falkland Islands the actual day of the Queen's birth is celebrated publicly.

All in all, just another reason it's great to be Queen.

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