There’s a story floating around the Internet about the space race of the ’60s, and how NASA and the Soviets took different paths to finding a writing utensil that would work in space.
In one version of the story, NASA scientists, after learning that standard ink pens wouldn’t function in outer space, began working on one that could operate in a gravity-free environment. After several years and millions of tax-payer dollars, they finally developed a pen astronauts could use. Meanwhile, the Soviets took a different approach. Instead of spending several years and millions of dollars developing a special pen for space, they decided to use pencils instead.
Now, this version of the story is a myth, and leaves out or distorts many details around the actual development of the “space pen,” which NASA still uses.1 But even though I know this version is mostly legend, there’s still an aspect of it that resonates with me. How often have I spent significant time and energy trying to solve a problem, only to later realize there was a much simpler solution I hadn’t considered? What I initially thought was a requirement, may not be truly required. And some of my initial assumptions or directions may need to be reconsidered.
There’s value in occasionally questioning our assumptions about what needs to be done or how to go about doing it. Because sometimes, in the midst of a seemingly complex problem, we may find a simpler solution hiding in plain sight.
For the real story of the “space pen” used by NASA, see https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/fact-or-fiction-nasa-spen/, https://www.nasa.gov/technology/tech-transfer-spinoffs/space-pens-pencils-and-how-nasa-takes-notes-in-space/, and https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/the-write-stuff/. ↩︎