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The Russians Didn't Just Use Pencils in Space

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A longstanding urban legend goes like this: During the space race of the 1960s, NASA spent millions developing a fancy "space pen" that could be used in zero gravity ... but the Soviets just used a pencil. This story resonates with us because NASA did actually spend piles of money on writing utensils in space—in 1965 they paid $128 per mechanical pencil, according to NASA historians (for the record, the pencils had high-strength outer casings, but the writing guts were just regular mechanical pencils). It just seems logical that the thrifty Soviets would use a simpler, smarter solution. But the story about the government-funded space pen and Soviets using pencils instead is just plain wrong—both space programs used the Fisher Space Pen, and neither paid anything to develop it. Let's dig into the real history here.

Why Don't Regular Ballpoint Pens Work in Space?

The traditional ballpoint pen relies partially on gravity to get ink out of the cartridge, onto the ball, and ultimately onto paper. Within the cartridge, there is a reservoir of ink (you can see this in that clear-plastic "stick" in the middle of a typical Bic pen). But without gravity, there is no force to push the ink towards the ball—it just floats freely in the cartridge. This is why traditional ballpoint pens don't write properly upside down (at least after the first few strokes) and often fail to write on vertical surfaces—the ink loses contact with the ball.

Why Not Use a Pencil?

Americans and Soviets actually did use pencils in space, before the Space Pen came around. Americans favored mechanical pencils, which produced a fine line but presented hazards when the pencil lead tips broke (and if you've ever used a mechanical pencil, you know that this happens a lot). That bit of graphite floating around the space capsule could get into someone's eye, or even find its way into machinery or electronics, causing an electrical short or other problems. And if there's one thing Houston didn't need, it was more astronauts calling up with problems.

The Soviet space program used grease pencils, which don't have breakage problems—to access more of the writing wax, cosmonauts simply peeled away another layer of paper. The problem with a grease pencil is that it's imprecise and smudgy—it's a lot like writing with a crayon. The peeled-away paper also created waste, and bits of paper floating around a Soyuz capsule were nearly as annoying as bits of graphite floating around an Apollo capsule.

The final mark against pencils has to do with fire. Any flammable material in a high-oxygen environment is a hazard, as we all learned after the terrible fire on Apollo 1. After that tragedy, NASA sought to minimize the use of flammable materials in space capsules—and every form of pencil (traditional, mechanical, or grease) involved some amount of flammable material, even if it was just the graphite.

The Fisher Space Pen

Image courtesy of Cpg100/Wikimedia Commons

In 1965, engineer Paul C. Fisher patented a new pen design that changed everything. His Fisher Pen Company reportedly spent $1 million of its own money to develop what was first called the "Anti-Gravity" Space Pen, and later simply the "Space Pen." Fisher happened to perfect his invention around the time that NASA had its $128 pencil problem, so Fisher capitalized on that bad press and publicized his heavy-duty pen as the obvious solution. And it worked.

Fisher's Space Pen featured a series of technological improvements, making it suitable for use not just in space, but in other demanding environments. Its biggest innovation was its ink capsule—pressurized nitrogen forced the ink to flow, enabling the pen to write upside-down, in zero gravity, in a vacuum, or even underwater. The nitrogen was separated from the ink by a floating barrier, which served to keep the ink in the writing end of the capsule. The ink was itself different from typical materials; it had a thixotropic (highly viscous) consistency that resisted evaporation, and kept the ink stationary until the ball moved, at which point it turned into a more typical fluid.

To counterbalance the pressurized ink flow, Fisher also included a precision roller ball made of tungsten carbide, positioned to prevent leakage. The pens were made entirely of metal except for the ink, which reportedly had a flash point of 200° C—enough to meet NASA's strict flammability requirements.

Fisher delivered samples of the Space Pen to NASA in 1965. NASA tested the pen to verify Fisher's claims, and ultimately approved a later version for use starting in 1967. Wanting to avoid the earlier scandal about paying excessive amounts for pencils, NASA received a bulk discount for the pens, reportedly paying just $2.39 per pen for an order of 400 units in 1968. The Soviet space agency also purchased 100 pens. NASA astronauts began using the Space Pen on Apollo 7 in 1968. By 1969, both the American and Soviet space programs had Fisher Space Pens in space—and Fisher trumpeted that success in his Space Pen marketing, which continues today. (Among other odd achievements, a Space Pen was used on the Russian space station Mir in the mid-1990s for a promotion on QVC, as the first product "sold from space.")

For more on Fisher and his Space Pen, check out the timeline of Fisher Space Pen history, Dwayne A. Day's excellent history of the pen, the Snopes article about the pen, or read more about Fisher and his history in politics. They're also still for sale.

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Instead of Lighting Fireworks, People in This Chinese Village Celebrate by Flinging Molten Iron
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Fireworks are a cultural symbol in China, but they weren't always easy to obtain. In a village in Yu County, China, people use a 500-year-old trick to achieve the same effect as fireworks with cheaper pyrotechnics.

This video from Great Big Story highlights the Chinese art of Da Shuhua, or splattering molten iron against walls to produce a fireworks-like shower of sparks. It started in the village of Nuanquan in the 16th century as a way for poor residents to imitate the expensive fireworks shows enjoyed by rich people in different parts of the country. Blacksmiths noticed that molten iron burst into dazzling sparks whenever it hit the ground and thought to recreate this phenomenon on a much larger scale. The townspeople loved it and began donating their scrap metal to create even grander displays.

Today, Da Shuhua is more than just a cheap alternative to regular fireworks: It's a cherished tradition to the people of Nuanquan. The village remains the only place in China to witness the art as it was done centuries ago—the people who practice it even wear the same traditional cotton and sheepskin garments to protect their skin from the 2900°F drops of metal flying through the air. As Wang De, who's been doing Da Shuhua for 30 years, says in the video below, "If you wear firefighter suits, it just doesn't feel right."

[h/t Great Big Story]

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Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock
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10 Radiant Facts About Marie Curie
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock
Photo Illustration by Mental Floss. Curie: Hulton Archive, Getty Images. Background: iStock

Born Maria Salomea Skłodowska in Poland in 1867, Marie Curie grew up to become one of the most noteworthy scientists of all time. Her long list of accolades is proof of her far-reaching influence, but not every stride she made in the fields of chemistry, physics, and medicine was recognized with an award. Here are some facts you might not know about the iconic researcher.

1. HER PARENTS WERE TEACHERS.

Maria Skłodowska was the fifth and youngest child of two Polish educators. Her parents placed a high value on learning and insisted all their children—even their daughters—receive a quality education at home and at school. Maria received extra science training from her father, and when she graduated from high school at age 15, she was first in her class.

2. SHE HAD TO SEEK OUT ALTERNATIVE EDUCATION FOR WOMEN.

After collecting her high school diploma, Maria had hoped to study at the University of Warsaw with her sister, Bronia. Because the school didn't accept women, the siblings instead enrolled at the Flying University, a Polish college that welcomed female students. It was still illegal for women to receive higher education at the time so the institution was constantly changing locations to avoid detection from authorities. In 1891 she moved to Paris to live with her sister, where she enrolled at the Sorbonne to continue her education.

3. SHE'S THE ONLY PERSON TO WIN NOBEL PRIZES IN TWO SEPARATE SCIENCES.

Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, in 1902.
Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre Curie, in 1902.
Agence France Presse, Getty Images

In 1903, Marie Curie made history when she won the Nobel Prize in physics with her husband, Pierre, and with physicist Henri Becquerel for their work on radioactivity, making her the first woman to receive the honor. The second Nobel Prize she took home in 1911 was even more historic. With that win in the chemistry category, she became the first person of any gender to win the award twice. She remains the only person to ever receive Nobel Prizes for two different sciences.

4. SHE ADDED TWO ELEMENTS TO THE PERIODIC TABLE.

The second Nobel Prize she received recognized her discovery and research of two elements: radium and polonium. The former element was named for the Latin word for "ray" and the latter was a nod to her home country, Poland.

5. NOBEL PRIZE-WINNING RUNS IN HER FAMILY.

Marie Curie's daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, and her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, circa 1940.
Marie Curie's daughter Irène Joliot-Curie, and her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, circa 1940.
Central Press, Hulton Archive // Getty Images

When Marie Curie and her husband, Pierre, won their Nobel Prize in 1903, their daughter Irène was only 6 years old. She would grow up to follow in her parents' footsteps by jointly winning the Nobel Prize for chemistry with her husband, Frédéric Joliot-Curie, in 1935. They were recognized for their discovery of "artificial" radioactivity, a breakthrough made possible by Irène's parents years earlier. Marie and Pierre's other son-in-law, Henry Labouisse, who married their younger daughter, Ève Curie, accepted a Nobel Prize for Peace on behalf of UNICEF, of which he was the executive director, in 1965. This brought the family's total up to five.

6. SHE DID HER MOST IMPORTANT WORK IN A SHED.

The research that won Marie Curie her first Nobel Prize required hours of physical labor. In order to prove they had discovered new elements, she and her husband had to produce numerous examples of them by breaking down ore into its chemical components. Their regular labs weren't big enough to accommodate the process, so they moved their work into an old shed behind the school where Pierre worked. According to Curie, the space was a hothouse in the summer and drafty in the winter, with a glass roof that didn't fully protect them from the rain. After the famed German chemist Wilhelm Ostwald visited the Curies' shed to see the place where radium was discovered, he described it as being "a cross between a stable and a potato shed, and if I had not seen the worktable and items of chemical apparatus, I would have thought that I was been played a practical joke."

7. HER NOTEBOOKS ARE STILL RADIOACTIVE.

Marie Curie's journals
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

When Marie was performing her most important research on radiation in the early 20th century, she had no idea the effects it would have on her health. It wasn't unusual for her to walk around her lab with bottles of polonium and radium in her pockets. She even described storing the radioactive material out in the open in her autobiography. "One of our joys was to go into our workroom at night; we then perceived on all sides the feebly luminous silhouettes of the bottles of capsules containing our products[…] The glowing tubes looked like faint, fairy lights."

It's no surprise then that Marie Curie died of aplastic anemia, likely caused by prolonged exposure to radiation, in 1934. Even her notebooks are still radioactive a century later. Today they're stored in lead-lined boxes, and will likely remain radioactive for another 1500 years.

8. SHE OFFERED TO DONATE HER MEDALS TO THE WAR EFFORT.

Marie Curie had only been a double-Nobel Laureate for a few years when she considered parting ways with her medals. At the start of World War I, France put out a call for gold to fund the war effort, so Curie offered to have her two medals melted down. When bank officials refused to accept them, she settled for donating her prize money to purchase war bonds.

9. SHE DEVELOPED A PORTABLE X-RAY TO TREAT SOLDIERS.

Marie Curie circa 1930
Marie Curie, circa 1930.
Keystone, Getty Images

Her desire to help her adopted country fight the new war didn't end there. After making the donation, she developed an interest in x-rays—not a far jump from her previous work with radium—and it didn't take her long to realize that the emerging technology could be used to aid soldiers on the battlefield. Curie convinced the French government to name her Director of the Red Cross Radiology Service and persuaded her wealthy friends to fund her idea for a mobile x-ray machine. She learned to drive and operate the vehicle herself and treated wounded soldiers at the Battle of the Marne, ignoring protests from skeptical military doctors. Her invention was proven effective at saving lives, and ultimately 20 "petite Curies," as the x-ray machines were called, were built for the war.

10. SHE FOUNDED CENTERS FOR MEDICAL RESEARCH.

Following World War I, Marie Curie embarked on a different fundraising mission, this time with the goal of supporting her research centers in Paris and Warsaw. Curie's radium institutes were the site of important work, like the discovery of a new element, francium, by Marguerite Perey, and the development of artificial radioactivity by Irène and Frederic Joliot-Curie. The centers, now known as Institut Curie, are still used as spaces for vital cancer treatment research today.

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