The Space Race and Targeted Innovation


By Noah Miller, M.A.

Fisher space pens are an excellent example of targeted innovation. While most people know the story, they likely do not know the truth behind why the pen was a necessary new technology. NASA supposedly spent millions of dollars and took years to have a pen developed that could write in space. Meanwhile the Soviets used a pencil. Truth be told, the astronauts and cosmonauts needed something that did more than just write. They needed a tool that took up less space, weighed less, was reusable, would not break, and would not create dust and debris in a weightless environment. When looking at those criteria, NASA did a pretty good job hitting the mark. Not to mention, like dehydrated ice cream, the space pens are fun to play with in space and here on Earth. However, here on Earth a pencil will usually do the job.

The NASA example actually shows that the engineers defined the problem and solved those issues precisely. The other truth is, they took the cost from about $130.00 per pencil to about $50.00 per pen1. If we use money as our other metric, then we can compare this targeted high tech innovation to some products we use in our homes every day like LED bulbs and Nest thermostats.

As we race to develop new technology it is important not to forget why we are creating. There is nothing wrong with pushing limits, reaching for the stars, and reaching the highest peak just because we can, but that does not mean we always have to be. After all, there is a cost to innovation. If the benefit does not outweigh the cost, the invention likely does not have much of a future. Targeted innovation looks to reduce cost by focusing on the specific problems that need to be solved.

  1. Curtin, C. 2006. Fact or Fiction?: NASA Spent Millions to Develop a Pen that Would Write in Space, whereas the Soviet Cosmonauts Used a Pencil. Scientific America.

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