Problem Solving Tips: Patterning, framing and the astronaut’s pen …

Excerpted from Think Better

Among the many discoveries NASA made when it began sending people into space was that the astronauts’ pens did not work well in zero gravity.

The ink wouldn’t flow properly. You can simulate the effect at home by trying to write with the business end of your pen pointing up.

Pretty soon, the ink stops flowing and the pen won’t write.




The solution – giving astronaut’s a way to write upside down —  depends on how you frame the problem …



To overcome the problem, NASA gathered several teams of mechanical, chemical, and hydrodynamic engineers; steeped them in the problem; and spent millions of research and prototype dollars to develop what became known as the space pen.




The space pen was very effective.

It worked in zero gravity,

it worked on earth writing upside down, it even worked under water.

A technological marvel.

Our archrivals at the time, the Soviets, solved the problem as well, but much more cheaply and, arguably, more effectively:

The Soviets supplied their cosmonauts with pencils.





The NASA scientists were grounded in patterns based on high technology.

Despite the fact that many of the engineers working on the problem probably used pencils themselves, they failed to see that there was an inexpensive, elegant, and reliable low-tech solution readily available.

They saw the problem as “How might we make a pen write in zero gravity?” rather than [framing it]  simply “How might we write in zero gravity?”


Excerpted from Hurson, Tim (2011-12-20). Think Better: An Innovator’s Guide to Productive Thinking (pp. 27-28). McGraw-Hill Education.


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3 Responses to “Problem Solving Tips: Patterning, framing and the astronaut’s pen …”

  1. Daniel Montano Says:

    Reblogged this on Framework 21.

  2. W Says:


    “Pencils may not have been the best choice anyway. The tips flaked and broke off, drifting in microgravity where they could potentially harm an astronaut or equipment. And pencils are flammable–a quality NASA wanted to avoid in onboard objects after the Apollo 1 fire.”

    NASA didn’t pay millions for it and the Soviets switched to it as well. This is urban legend plain and simple.

  3. TTK Says:

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