U.S. astronaut Walter Cunningham writes with a Fisher Space Pen during the flight of Apollo 7

No, NASA Didn’t Spend Millions on a Space Pen While Soviet Cosmonauts Used Pencils [Debunking the Myth]

During the 1960s, as NASA prepared to send the first astronauts into space, they realized that pens don’t work in zero gravity (actually, in microgravity). As the legend goes, they then spent years and millions of taxpayer dollars to develop a “space pen” that could write in microgravity. Meanwhile, the Soviet cosmonauts simply used pencils.

The moral of the story for many is that NASA was seen as a wasteful government organization, funneling hard-earned taxpayer dollars to greedy contractors charging exorbitant prices for seemingly trivial objects. Meanwhile, the enemy, the Soviet Union, was portrayed as being practical and using common sense.

Why the “Space Pen” Was a Necessity

The “space pen” story, in its urban legend form, is a myth. In fact, in the early years of the space race, both NASA astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts were using pencils. For Project Gemini, for example, NASA ordered mechanical pencils in 1965 from Tycam Engineering Manufacturing, Inc., in Houston.

They were standard mechanical pencils with extra nylon wrapping and Velcro ends. The fixed-price contract purchased 34 units at a total cost of $4,382.50, or $128.89 per unit. This created a controversy at the time, as many people believed it was a frivolous expense. NASA quickly backtracked and equipped the astronauts with less costly items.

What’s more, as pencils posed many threats in space, both NASA and the Soviets were looking for an alternative. Some of these threats to using a pencil in a microgravity environment are:

  • The graphite present in the pencils was prone to cause a disturbance in the electrical conduction of the intricately designed systems.
  • Graphite particles could cause explosions or a fire in the oxygen-rich atmosphere of a spacecraft.
  • There was also a risk of fire due to the wood or wood particles used in these pencils.
  • Wood shavings and graphite from normal pencils, as well as ink from normal pens, can float around and create debris.
  • Broken pencil tips could become hazardous projectiles in a microgravity environment.
  • Floating debris from pencils could interfere with the operation of sensitive equipment and instruments.
  • Handling pencils could create fine dust that might be inhaled by astronauts, posing a health risk.
  • These significant risks led both NASA and the Soviet space program to seek safer, more reliable alternatives for writing instruments in space.

How the “Space Pen” Revolutionized Writing in Space

During this time, American inventor and politician Paul C. Fisher (October 10, 1913 – October 20, 2006) of the Fisher Pen Co. designed a ballpoint pen that would operate better in the unique environment of space. He experimented for a few years, reportedly invested about $1 million, and created his first “Anti-Gravity” pen, the AG7, which he patented in 1966.

His new pen, with a pressurized ink cartridge, functioned in a weightless environment, in a vacuum, underwater, in other liquids, and in temperature extremes ranging from -30 °F to +250 °F (-34.5 °C to +121 °C). It could also write at any angle on almost any surface.

And here is the key point: Fisher developed his space pen with no NASA funding, nor was he contracted with the space agency. The company spent approximately $1 million from its own funds, then patented its product and cornered the market as a result.

Fisher offered the pens to NASA in 1965, but, because of the earlier controversy, the agency was hesitant. In 1967, after rigorous tests, NASA managers agreed to equip Apollo astronauts with these pens. Media reports indicate that approximately 400 pens were purchased from Fisher at $6 per unit for Project Apollo (today, the price tag of the original Anti-Gravity AG7 Original Astronaut Space Pen is $60).

The space pen first went to space with the Apollo 7 mission.

U.S. astronaut Walter Cunningham writes with a Fisher Space Pen during the flight of Apollo 7
U.S. astronaut Walter Cunningham (March 16, 1932 – January 3, 2023) writes with a Fisher Space Pen during the flight of Apollo 7, the first crewed Apollo flight and the Space Pen’s first trip to space. The pens have been used on every NASA mission since. Image source: NASA

NASA purchased three different models: the 204, 207, and 208. The 204 had blue ink and a retraction button on the end. It was used on Skylab and the Apollo missions, later replaced by the 207. The 207 model was similar to the 204, except the retraction button had been moved to the side. The 208 model was the same as the 207, except it wrote in black ink. NASA modified these pens for use in the space program by adding Velcro patches and a standard metal clip to facilitate storage and attachment.

The Soviet Union also purchased 100 of the Fisher pens and 1,000 ink cartridges in February 1969 for use on its Soyuz space flights. They, too, moved away from pencils as the tips could break off and float around the cabin.

Did the space pen cost NASA millions?

Of course not. Contrary to popular belief, taxpayers did not bear millions in costs for this innovation. The early ballpoints were prone to leaking, skipping, and drying up. Paul Fisher, who had previously invented the first universal ink cartridge refill, was experimenting with a sealed cartridge pressurized with nitrogen. This design initially caused leaks.

When NASA approached Fisher for a pen suitable for space, he saw potential in his pressurized cartridge. After adding resin to make the ink thixotropic-almost solid until friction liquefied it-he perfected the design, creating the AG7 anti-gravity pen. He sent several prototypes to NASA.

Fisher Space Pen AG7
Fisher Space Pen AG7 – the original astronaut space pen. First introduced during the Apollo 7 space mission in 1968 after two years of testing by NASA, this pen has been used on all crewed space flights since then. The design and construction of the pen have remained unchanged. It has been used on all NASA Apollo and Space Shuttle missions, the International Space Station (ISS), Russian Soyuz and MIR space flights, the French ARIANE Space Program, and the Everest North Face Ski Expedition. Image source: Fisher Space Pen website

NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center, now Johnson Space Center, rigorously tested the pens. They worked in all positions, extreme temperatures, and various atmospheric conditions, including pure oxygen and vacuum. The pens exceeded NASA’s requirements, capable of drawing a line over three miles long.

NASA’s interest and testing transformed the AG7 from a prototype to a reliable product. Once proven in space, Paul Fisher named it the Space Pen. Despite initial skepticism from his son Cary Fisher, the name captured the public’s imagination and highlighted the pen’s reliability and American ingenuity.

At a time when NASA faced numerous challenges to put astronauts on the Moon, Fisher’s invention symbolized the innovative spirit of small businesses contributing to monumental achievements. The Fisher Pen Company, now located in Boulder City, Nevada, continues to refine the technology and produce new models. The Space Pen remains a testament to effective problem-solving and technological advancement spurred by the collaboration between an inventor and a pioneering space agency.

Are space pens still in use?

Yes, they are still in use.

Both American astronauts and Soviet/Russian cosmonauts have continued to use these pens. The space pen went on to become a staple not only in space missions but also in many other industries.

NASA astronaut Rex Walheim, an STS-135 mission specialist, is pictured on the flight deck of the space shuttle Atlantis, taking notes using a space pen
NASA astronaut Rex Walheim, an STS-135 mission specialist, is pictured on the flight deck of the space shuttle Atlantis, taking notes using a space pen during the mission’s fourth day of activities in Earth orbit and second day docked with the International Space Station. Image: NASA

According to NASA, there are dozens of space pens currently on the International Space Station.

Space pens are popular gift items and you can also purchase one. Fisher continues to market his space pens as the writing instrument that went to the Moon and has spun off this effort into a separate corporation, the Fisher Space Pen Co.

An AG-7 Astronaut Space Pen in presentation case
An AG-7 Astronaut Space Pen in a presentation case. By Wikipedia user Cpg100 – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Sources

M. Özgür Nevres

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