On Innovation, or Finding the Proper Pen




NASA / public domain
Apollo 7 Prime Crew


Apollo 7 launched on October 11, 1968, for its eleven-day mission to orbit the Earth. Walter Schirra, Donn Eisele, and R. Walter Cunningham—Apollo 7’s crew—had been a back-up crew for an earlier planned manned mission. But what became known as Apollo 1 never launched; its crew perished in a cabin fire during a test on the launch pad. Apollo 1’s 1967 back-up crew was reassigned as Apollo 7’s crew. Schirra became the only astronaut to fly Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. On the Apollo 7 mission, he, then Eisele, developed a head cold, and space colds are especially bad because mucous doesn’t drain in zero gravity. That, along with motion sickness, dissatisfaction with the meals, inconvenient solid waste collection, and some fogged windows, made for enough grumpiness that these three astronauts were never again chosen for mission crews.

The space pen, however, made its orbital debut in the hands of Apollo 7’s crew and has been writing itself into history ever since. Fisher, the pen’s manufacturer, finished development of its zero-gravity pen in 1965, NASA tested it for two years, and the Apollo 7 crew finally put the ballpoint—with its pressurized ink cartridge—to use in space. Pencils had been dangerous and costly; 34 mechanical pencils for Gemini were reported to cost $128 each. Like pencils, the space pen can write at any angle, in extreme temperatures, and even underwater. Moreover, pens don’t break off into free-floating, bit-sized projectiles. Anyone who’s tried to use an Energel, which is otherwise fantastic, on an airplane can surmise what might go wrong with a pen in space. But Fisher solved every writing problem with their new pen. And media reports at the time made it a bargain by comparison to the pricey Gemini pencils, at just $6 per item. NASA ordered 400, and Fisher forever cornered the market in both the United States and the Soviet Union, now Russia.

The space pen was a great idea! While pondering this graphological innovation on Saturday, we wandered around Southern California. We ended up at Vroman’s Bookstore to hear Steven Johnson explain Where Good Ideas Come From. We’d read his earlier book Emergence years ago, and we’d been looking for an excuse to visit Pasadena’s independent bookshop. Johnson’s latest book discusses various “patterns of innovation,” just the sort of thing to fuel our Lofty Ambitions.

One of Johnson’s most interesting anecdotes in the book—and in his talk at Vroman’s—stems from the launch of Sputnik on Friday, October 4, 1957. Physicists at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory were buzzing about the news by the following Monday. Somebody suggested trying to pick up Sputnik’s signals, George Weiffenbach had a receiver right there in his office, and the Soviets broadcast on an accessible signal so that nobody would claim the satellite was a hoax. Ta-dah, listening to the satellite was easy, once someone decided to try to do it.

Creative Commons
Dawn of the Space Age by Gregory R Todd, created to mark the 50th anniversary of the launch of Sputnik

Then, someone suggested recording the signals, and, of course, there were tape recorders right there at the lab. Once they started recording, William Guier and George Weiffenbach wondered whether they could, if they listened to the tapes, use the Doppler effect to figure out the satellite’s movement based on changes in the waveform of the signals. It turned out that, in a few hours, two guys could calculate both Sputnik’s speed and trajectory. Now that’s ingenuity—that’s quite an accomplishment.

Then, some bigwig asked these two guys another question: If you can calculate a satellite’s position from a stationary receiver on the ground, can you figure out the location of a receiver if you know the satellite’s exact orbit? Yes, the two guys said, that problem “was eminently solvable.” Within three years, we had “five U.S. satellites in orbit, providing navigational data to the military,” most importantly to submarines whose location wasn’t fixed.

In other words, two guys spent a few hours in 1957 giving birth to a Global Positioning System (GPS). In 1983, after Korean Air 007 was shot down as a result of faulty ground-based navigation, satellite-based navigation was opened to civilian use. Now, our cars tell us when to make a right turn, and our phones tell us where the nearest coffee shop is located. Once the platform—platform is the pattern Steven Johnson sees in this example of innovation—is established, emergent or “generative power” leads to more and more  innovation. Eventually, automobile drivers don’t need to know how satellites work, nor do they even need their own maps, in order to get where we want to go.

We haven’t yet finished reading Where Good Ideas Come From, but we already know that “Serendipity” is our favorite chapter. We’ve long held that serendipity is one of the most powerful forces in the universe. Here’s how Steven Johnson defines it:

[S]erendipity is not just about embracing random encounters for the sheer exhilaration of it. Serendipity is built out of happy accidents, to be sure, but what makes them happy is the fact that the discovery you’ve made is meaningful to you. It completes a hunch, or opens up a door in the adjacent possible that you had overlooked. […] Serendipity needs unlikely collisions and discoveries, but it also needs something to anchor those discoveries.

We purchased our first space pens at the National Air and Space Museum in 1991, probably in October. At that time, we had no plans to write about those pens roughly twenty years later. But Sputnik launched on an October Friday in 1957, Apollo 7 launched in October 1968, and Steven Johnson talked with us about serendipity this past October Saturday. How could we not write about space pens this month?

2 thoughts on “On Innovation, or Finding the Proper Pen

  1. My trusty red space pen allowed me to grade in bed at strange angles for many years! And…don’t you love Pasadena! One of my favorite towns.

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