During the height of the space race in the 1960s, legend has it, NASA scientists realized that pens could not function in zero gravity. They therefore spent years and millions of taxpayer dollars developing a ballpoint pen that could put ink to paper without needing gravitational force to pull on the fluid. But their crafty Soviet counterparts, so the story goes, simply handed cosmonauts grease pencils. Did NASA really waste that much money?
The Space Pencil
Originally American astronauts, like the Soviets, wrote with pencils, according to NASA historians. Indeed, in 1965 NASA ordered 34 mechanical pencils from Tycam Engineering Manufacturing in Houston at $128.89 apiece: $4,382.50 in total. When these sums became public and caused an outcry, NASA scrambled to find a cheaper alternative.
Pencils may not have been the best choice anyway. The tips could flake or break off, drifting in microgravity where they might harm an astronaut or equipment. And pencils are flammable—a characteristic NASA wanted to avoid in onboard objects after the Apollo 1 fire.
The Space-Age Ballpoint
Meanwhile Paul C. Fisher and his business, Fisher Pen Company, had invested a reported $1 million (none of it from NASA) to create what is now commonly known as the space pen. The device, patented in 1965, could write upside down, in frigid or roasting conditions (down to –50 degrees Fahrenheit or up to 400 degrees F), and even underwater or submersed in other liquids. If too hot, though, the ink turned green instead of its normal blue.
Fisher offered the implement to NASA. Because of the earlier mechanical pencil fiasco, the agency hesitated. But after testing the tool—named the AG-7 “Anti-Gravity” Space Pen—the U.S. decided in 1967 to use it on future spaceflights. Fisher's pen makes up for a lack of gravity by storing ink in a cartridge pressurized with nitrogen at 35 pounds per square inch—more than twice as much force as sea-level atmospheric pressure on Earth. This pressure pushes the ink toward the tungsten carbide ball at the pen's tip.
The ink, too, differs from that of other pens. It stays a gel-like 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.
An Associated Press dispatch from February 1968 reported that NASA ordered 400 of Fisher's antigravity ballpoint pens for the Apollo moon mission program. A year later the Soviet Union ordered 100 pens and 1,000 ink cartridges to use on their Soyuz space missions, the United Press International said. 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—nowhere near millions.
The space pen's mark on the Apollo program was not limited to facilitating writing in microgravity. According to its maker, the Apollo 11 astronauts, who were the first to walk on the moon, also wielded the pen to fix a broken engine-activating switch on the lunar module—a repair that enabled them to lift off from the moon for their rendezvous with the mother ship and their return to Earth.
Since the late 1960s American astronauts and Russian cosmonauts have used Fisher's pens. In fact, Fisher has created an entire line of space pens. A newer version, called the Shuttle Pen, served on NASA's space shuttles and on the Russian space station, Mir. Of course, you don't have to go into orbit to get your hands on a space pen—earthbound folks can own one for the low, low price of $50.