The Space Pen has captured the American imagination in more ways than one. He has appeared several times in popular culture and acted as a scheming machine on Seinfeld’s episode “The Pen”, and in 2021 wrapped up Space Technology Hall of Fame. It’s also the subject of a myth that the space agency spent millions creating a pen that could write in zero gravity, while astronauts simply used a pencil.
Let’s find out facts about the space pen and pencils in space and how NASA Astronauts write aboard the space station.
Is the space pen real?
Yes that’s it. The Fisher Space pen first appeared on television in October 1968, with Apollo 7 mission commander Walter Schira demonstrating weightlessness by blowing on a pen to control its movement while the capsule was floating. It was one of the first live video broadcasts of an American spacecraft. Since then, Space Pens have appeared on TV shows from “Mad Men” and “Gilmore Girls” to “How It Made.” The pens are on display in the Space Museums and in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
In 2021, the Space Foundation recognized this technology as cooperation Developed for the space now improving life on Earth, it has joined nearly 80 other techs in the organization’s Hall of Fame.
Why not just use a pencil?
NASA wanted an alternative to pencils, where the mine could easily detach and fly away, creating a hazard to astronauts and sensitive electronics aboard the spacecraft. Astronauts have also been using space pens since 1969.
Did it cost taxpayers millions?
No, Paul Fisher of Fisher Pen was already working on a compact pen. However, it will likely never reach the heights it has reached, in orbit or in popularity, without the tests from NASA.
“The original ink points were horrific,” said Carrie Fisher, Paul’s son and current president of the company, which is now located in Boulder City, Nevada. He notes that the first ink tips tend to leak, jump and dry out.
To solve the problem, his father, who had actually invented the first universal ink cartridge refill, worked on an airtight cartridge that had compressed nitrogen on top to push a small piston against the ink. But the pressure scared the pens.
When NASA called him in search of a stylus that didn’t require gravity, he knew a pressurized ink cartridge might be the only thing, if he could fix the leaks. To spur NASA’s interest in it, he finally succeeded when he added resin to the ink to make it “thixotropic”—almost solid until rubbing against the ball at the tip of the ink. The result was called AG7, to combat gravity, and several were sent to NASA.
NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center, now the Johnson Space Center in Houston, has tested the pens extensively. The space agency has discovered that the pens work in all positions, in extreme temperatures and extreme cold, and in atmospheres ranging from pure oxygen to a vacuum. They retained enough ink to draw a solid line three miles long, well exceeding NASA’s ink requirement of half a kilometer (0.3 miles).
These tests accelerated the pen’s development from a prototype to a safe and reliable product.
Once she flew into space, Paul decided her name space pen. “I thought that was a terrible name,” her son recalls. “I said it would look like a toy. But my dad was right, as he often was.”
The pens are partly known for their reliability, but they also came to symbolize American ingenuity: the inventor and small-business owner stepped up and solved the pen problem while NASA focused on landing American astronauts safely on the moon.
Paul and his son continued to master technology and design new models.
Do astronauts still use it?
The pens have been used on all of NASA’s manned missions since Apollo 7 – dozens are currently aboard the International Space Station.
Is it for space only?
The Space Pen range now consists of about 80 models.
Carey said that while they are popular gifts, they are especially sought after by members of the military and law enforcement, as well as outdoor enthusiasts, aircraft manufacturers, and petroleum workers, who, like astronauts, value their ability to write in any form.
The Fisher Pen Company has distributors in 52 countries but still manufactures all of its pens in Boulder City, where more than 60 employees work with more than one million pens annually.
NASA has a long history of transferring technology to the private sector. Spinoff’s post for the agency provides an overview of NASA technologies turned into commercial products and services, illustrating the broader benefits of US investments in its space program. Spinoff is a publication of the Technology Transfer Program of NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate.
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