Carlos Mencia has a joke about the U.S. spending billions of dollars to develop a pen capable of writing in space, while the Russians just used pencils. The truth is more of a middle ground – both Russia and the U.S. used pencils in space originally, and then a private contractor developed a pen that can write in space, and NASA purchased the design for far less than the billions that the media would suggest. Since then, NASA has realized that sometimes a pen just won’t do, and is investing in the development of a mechanical pencil. In their hour of need, NASA has turned to everyone’s favorite source for ridiculously cheap skilled labor: students.
I know what you’re thinking: any standard wood-and-graphite pencil will work in zero gravity – why a mechanical pencil? One major concern with a regular pencil is the potential for the tip to break off. Something as harmless as a broken pencil tip on earth becomes a sharp, pointy little risk to astronauts and equipment alike when floating free in zero gravity. The tip isn’t the only part of the pencil that poses a safety concern in space either. Following the fatal fire aboard Apollo 1 in 1967, NASA avoids having flammable objects aboard space ships as much as possible.
Enter the students of Kennett High School in Conway, New Hampshire. Students participating in a program called HUNCH - which stands for High School Students United with NASA to Create Hardware – are working to develop mechanical pencils for NASA, specifically for use by astronauts aboard the International Space Station. NASA supplies the materials and quality control, while students supply the design and labor. The machining program students were scouted by NASA last year after their stellar performance in national competitions. Their current design is super lightweight and calls for a pencil cartridge, a ring, velcro, and graphite, in addition to three parts the KHS students will make in the machine lab.
HUNCH signs three-year contracts with each of its schools, and can renew the contract after the three years are up. In addition to pencils, HUNCH students have also designed and built machine parts used in astronaut training, and KHS students involved in culinary arts will be designing an entree to be consumed by astronauts in space. Students can thank Stacy Hale, the founder of HUNCH, for the incredible opportunity, and NASA can thank her for the cost-effective labor and design. Since it began in 2003, 180 products manufactured by HUNCH students have been approved by NASA for use in the International Space Station; of those, 110 are already in use in space.
According to Kennett HS metals shop instructor Andy Shaw, the KHS students currently in their second year of partnership with HUNCH are ahead of where they were projected to be five years from the start of their partnership. The students are enthusiastic about meeting NASA’s need for a mechanical pencil that will allow them to write safely with graphite in space. You can read more about the partnership and the project here.