The Space Pen: Fact vs Fiction
According to an urban legend, at the height of the Space Race in the 1960s, engineers from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) were faced with a problem: writing in space. Astronauts frequently needed to write down instructions from mission control or make calculations for orbital maneuvers. However, the standard ballpoint pen is gravity-fed and thus won't work in the microgravity environment of Earth orbit.
To solve the problem, NASA tasked a team of engineers with inventing a pen that would write in zero gravity. At a cost of several million dollars and after years of research and development, the engineers solved the problem. They invented the zero-gravity pen.
At the same time, the Soviet space program was faced with the same problem of writing in space. They solved it by using pencils.
It's a great urban legend. And like most urban legends, it is a complete fabrication. The real story behind the Fisher Space Pen is a far more interesting tale of private ingenuity, political wrangling, and gutsy marketing.
The Space Pen was developed by Paul Fisher, founder of the Fisher Pen Company. Having achieved some earlier success with the invention of the Universal Refill that was compatible with most major brands of pen, Fisher set out to invent an even more universal refill - one that would work in outer space.
After reportedly spending about $1 million of his own money for research and development, Fisher invented an ink refill that did not rely on gravity to feed ink into the ball point. The refill used pressurized nitrogen at the back end to push the ink toward the tip, allowing it to be used upside down, underwater, or in zero gravity.
A second invention was a gel ink that liquefies as it contacts the rolling ball point. This allows the pen to work at temperatures between −30° and 250° Fahrenheit (−35° and 120° Celsius). Fisher received U.S. Patent #3,285,228 for the AG-7 Anti-Gravity Pen in 1965. A year later, the company began producing a new and improved version - the Space Pen.
Making The Sale
In the early years of the U.S. space program, astronauts used pencils. Graphite pencils are not ideal for a microgravity environment. Since graphite dust and broken pencil tips do not fall to the ground, they can float around the cabin where they might be inhaled by astronauts or, worse, get into electronics where they would present a fire hazard.
NASA had been using mechanical pencils on the Gemini missions, though these had been manufactured with a few customizations. The housings were made of lightweight materials and designed so they could be attached to instrument panels and used while wearing bulky gloves. These customizations did not come cheap - they cost the space agency almost $129 per unit, a fact that caused a bit of a flap in 1963 when members of Congress learned of the expense. After this public embarrassment, the agency began using common off-the-shelf writing instruments for space missions.
In 1966, Paul Fisher offered to sell his newly-invented Space Pen to NASA. Initially, the agency turned him down, still reeling from the earlier pencil controversy. Undeterred, Fisher began marketing the pen with advertising claims that it had been tested and approved by NASA, then persuaded his Congressman to insert some promotional information about the Space Pen into the Congressional Record in 1966.
NASA's initial reaction to the advertising was negative, but the product was something they needed. After the tragic Apollo 1 fire, the agency wanted to minimize fire hazards in their spacecraft - including wooden pencils with graphite leads. After a bit of negotiation between the agency's procurement office and Fisher, NASA agreed to buy 400 units of the AG7 Anti-Gravity pen for a very reasonable $2.97 each. The pen saw its first flight on Apollo 7, and was put into service above and beyond its writing duties on Apollo 11, when it was used to fix a broken switch.
Since Apollo, Fisher's Space Pens have been used aboard Skylab, the Space Shuttle, Soyuz, MIR, and the International Space Station. Today, they are sold as novelty items at museums specializing in air and space exhibits - though the selling price is a bit higher than the $2.97 NASA paid for them in 1968.
Sources and Further Information
- Fisher Space Pen Co.
Official web site of the Fisher Space Pen
- NASA History: Fisher Space Pen
Fisher developed his space pen with no NASA funding. The company reportedly invested about $1 million of its own funds in the effort then patented its product and cornered the market as a result.
- The Space Review: The billion-dollar space pen
Space has its urban legends of course, and the Million Dollar Space Pen is one of the more enduring ones.
- Fact or Fiction?: NASA Spent Millions to Develop a Pen that Would Write in Space, whereas the Soviet
The problem of weightless writing was not solved by either Soviet central planning or good old American sub-contracting, but by a private investor and a good idea