In the early space flight before computers, this was a real conundrum. An urban legend exists that NASA spent millions of dollars developing a pen that could write in zero gravity. (Ballpoint pens are gravity fed and don’t work in space.) While Cosmonauts used pencils.

It’s a cute story that teaches us not to overcomplicate things. It’s also not true.

Writing in space turned out to be much more complex. Pencils need to be sharpened. This releases carbon, lead, and wood shavings into the zero-gravity environment that creates too many hazards to count. Pencils also tend to break off leaving lead projectiles floating around with sensitive circuit boards and oxygen tanks.

Complex problems require smart solutions. Enter the space pen. The nifty, pressurised, write upside down in freezing temperatures pen. Worked great in space, until they figured out how to build laptops that run in zero gravity. (Turns out cooling and radiation presented real challenges.)

Some problems are more complex than we realise at first glance. Deep work pays off.

Now, I can get a pen to write with upside down, in the Arctic. Lucky me.

Kelly Sikkema

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