During the height of the space race in the 1960s, legend has it, NASA scientists realized that pens could not function in space. They needed to figure out another way for the astronauts to write things down. So they spent years and millions of taxpayer dollars to develop a pen that could put ink to paper without gravity. But their crafty Soviet counterparts, so the story goes, simply handed their cosmonauts pencils.
This tale with its message of simplicity and thrift–not to mention a failure of common sense in a bureaucracy–floats around the Internet, hopping from in-box to in-box, and even surfaced during a 2002 episode of the West Wing. But, alas, it is just a myth.
Originally, NASA astronauts, like the Soviet cosmonauts, used pencils, according to NASA historians. In fact, NASA ordered 34 mechanical pencils from Houston’s Tycam Engineering Manufacturing, Inc., in 1965. They paid $4,382.50 or $128.89 per pencil. When these prices became public, there was an outcry and NASA scrambled to find something cheaper for the astronauts to use.
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.
Paul C. Fisher and his company, the Fisher Pen Company, reportedly invested $1 million to create what is now commonly known as the space pen. None of this investment money came from NASA’s coffers–the agency only became involved after the pen was dreamed into existence. In 1965 Fisher patented a pen that could write upside-down, in frigid or roasting conditions (down to minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit or up to 400 degrees F), and even underwater or in other liquids. If too hot, though, the ink turned green instead of its normal blue.
That same year, Fisher offered the AG-7 “Anti-Gravity” Space Pen to NASA. Because of the earlier mechanical pencil fiasco, NASA was hesitant. But, after testing the space pen intensively, the agency decided to use it on spaceflights beginning in 1967. Unlike most ballpoint pens, Fisher’s pen does not rely on gravity to get the ink flowing. The cartridge is instead pressurized with nitrogen at 35 pounds per square inch. This pressure pushes the ink toward the tungsten carbide ball at the pen’s tip.The ink, too, differs from that of other pens. Fisher used ink that stays a gellike solid until the movement of the ballpoint turns it into a fluid. The pressurized nitrogen also prevents air from mixing with the ink so it cannot evaporate or oxidize.
According to an Associated Press report from February 1968, NASA ordered 400 of Fisher’s antigravity ballpoint pens for the Apollo program. A year later, the Soviet Union ordered 100 pens and 1,000 ink cartridges to use on their Soyuz space missions, said the United Press International. The AP later noted that both NASA and the Soviet space agency received the same 40 percent discount for buying their pens in bulk. They both paid $2.39 per pen instead of $3.98.
The space pen’s mark on the Apollo program was not limited to facilitating writing in microgravity. According to the Fisher Space Pen Company, the Apollo 11 astronauts also used the pen to fix a broken arming switch, enabling their return to Earth.
Since the late 1960s American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts have used Fisher’s pens. In fact, Fisher has created a whole line of space pens. A newer pen, called the Shuttle Pen, was used on NASA’s space shuttles and on the Russian space station, Mir. Of course, you don’t have to go to space to get your hands on a space pen–earthbound folks can own one for the low, low price of $50.00.