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The Pen That Didn’t Write

Posted by intellisg on March 18, 2007

Space has its legends – the Space Pen is one of the more enduring ones. It’s neither as outlandish nor as unbelievable as conspiracy theories about staged the Moon landings. Or how; the Vatican has secretly entered into a pact with NASA to convert Martians into Catholics. Even though it seems more credible than a massive government conspiracy, it is probable that fewer people have heard about it.

The story goes like this: in the 1960s, astronauts discovered ordinary ball pens couldn’t write in zero gravity. So NASA (need another stupid astronaut) recruited the best scientist to design a DRWI (data recording writing instrument). With its pressurized hermetically sealed chamber, it performed flawlessly in space. The only problem; it blew the lid off the budget – the pen cost millions!

On the other side of the planet to solve the same problem; the Russians assigned a clerk to the serious business of tackling the writing conundrum. They spent the equivalent of five cents. Their solution: a pencil.

Since then NASA has had a hard time trying to live down the debacle. The space pen saga is synonymous with waste, mismanagement and negligence of mythical proportions. Recounting it serves a social purpose, reinforcing the morality,

“There is no need to reinvent the wheel” Or, “why learn to walk on water when you can buy a seat on a ferry?”

Undoubtedly the space pen story aspires to the reception of satire. Simply recounting it conjures up a host of adjectives associated with pharaonic, grandiose, white elephant etc. You get the point. Apart from being an apt metaphor to describe waste, it also promotes the whole idea of old fashion common sense. Since the last punch line of the space pen story presumably speaks of practical rubber band and superglue down to earth Russians. Who while lacking finesse and funding, still manage to get the job done by simply applying down to earth commonsense. Again the moral of the story is, KISS:

“Keep it simple stupid.”

The space pen theme typically gets played out whenever policy makers, firms and individuals try to make a meal out of an elephant. It’s rhapsodic and sardonic even in the way it juxtaposes and teases out: the conflict between simplicity and complexity, David against Goliath, hare and tortoise, fox and porcupine, common sense and special knowledge.

It’s a theme that we are only too familiar with these days: such as the ongoing great bio-med push and whether it is justified? Can Singapore really afford to embark on a high end research initiative that embodies as the controversy associated with the space pen? Wouldn’t our long term strategic business interest be better served by focusing on the basic nuts and bolts of science?

The wisdom “to be or not to be,” depends largely on whether you think it is worthwhile producing a space pen in the first place? After all decision nexus to embark on the bio-med push is not so different from the merits of producing the space pen. Some may say I am trivializing the debate. But break it down to its aggregate parts and what do you really have?

It’s the question: is simple and cheap necessarily better than complicated and big? Its one that question whether we can afford to pursue a dream that takes 10 to 20 to even materialize a return on investment. Or should we perhaps focus on the basic sciences as Miss Lee. W.L mentioned and along with nuts and bolts engineering, such as developing core competencies in desalination and tropical architecture which are less lofty, yet more attainable in the short term.

The question compels us to consider: Is there a God in the small? Did Jack Welch really see the light of reason when he coined the phrase, “small is beautiful.” I am sure it’s much more complicated and surely there must be some compelling argument to suggest why; big leaps and mega projects are necessary to crave out an enduring competitive advantage.

That’s only true if you believe big leaps are the only way to accomplish big things – The last time anyone tried to make a meal out of an elephant was during the 1950’s. When Mao launched the Great Leap Forward with the phrase:

“Its possible to accomplish any task whatsoever.” (Obviously he never bothered to read up on the dubious science of transmuting lead to gold; the brief history of alchemy.)

Even today as historians sieve through the wreckage of the great leap many remain confounded why the party leaders didn’t realize something was woefully wrong even from the word, “go forth!” Didn’t the alarm bells go off? Actually enough to even suggest R.I.P means rise if possible! What happened to the system? Did all the commissars just put on gym shoes and ran off leaving their brains behind? No, in fact all the evidence suggested, there were tomes of empirical evidence which suggested the great leap failed even less than one year after its inception! So why didn’t someone howler at the great helmsman to change course?

One clue lies in the official utopian literature of the period. To support “the great lie,” the state controlled media responded to the radiant utopian vision by creating a fairytale of their own. It leveraged on the trite and simple, the power of imagery and suggestion which featured healthy commune workers toiling away in model communes. Where there were enough fat pigs and emerald fields to suggest everything was going on as planned.

Featured interviews with young couples trading in their urban life’s for the ploughshare cottage life in communes regularly framed the great lie,

“This was new dawn, otherwise why would we move to the countryside! We are not stupid you know. We are graduates from the University of Peking!” The chorus urbanite farmers would chant.

The communist propaganda machine pioneered innovate ways to use the mass media to maintain the great lie. Glass factories extolled their productivity by highlighting increases in tonnage used. While deliberately producing paper weight goblets – when productivity experts suggested the number of units produced would capture more accurately real output. They were packed off en mass to re-education camps. Communes did the same producing mountains of steel not withstanding the end product milled out in backyard furnaces was so lousy. It couldn’t even be used for construction – it’s original purpose. When productivity experts suggested quality assurance should be introduced as a bench mark, again they were packed off again. As a result buildings collapsed, rail wagons derailed and bridges wobbled no end.

Again when productivity experts highlighted backyard furnaces were using too much coal and they were just plain inefficient and a wasteful. Their conversion tables were thrown out and again they were packed off to re-education camps. When experts highlighted how rapid industrialization would lead to agricultural disequilibrium, again they were packed off.

The result; famine on a scale that can only be described as the sum of all our fears and more. Eventually, the great lie unfolded, like the onion story, the more they (the leaders) peeled the more they cried and finally the machine that tried to change the world came to a halt.

The Great Leap Forward it seemed wasn’t so much a leap to utopia as it was a swan dive into the abyss of dystopia.

What went wrong you ask? Many things, but that can wait and I am sure you will be able to figure it out. As for me, I need to do something very important now. No not save the planet, that too can wait, it’s time to sharpen my pencils.

(By Harphoon /Business/Socio/Politics – EP 993924 – 2007 – The Brotherhood Press 2007)


2 Responses to “The Pen That Didn’t Write”

  1. anon said

    The million dollar NASA space pen is nothing but a myth.

    To summarise:
    a. Paul C. Fisher, the inventor of the space pen, was not funded by NASA (no million dollars from them)
    b. He sold each pen at a mere $2.95 to NASA. 400 of them in total.
    c. Pencils have problems with broken lead floating around in zero gravity.
    d. Pencils are also highly flammable because it is made of wood and graphite.
    e. Both American and Russian astronauts originally used grease pencils with pencil slates and switched over to space pens.


  2. astroboy said

    pens dont chew as well as pencils. it is very stressful in space a billion things can go wrong

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