Rumor has it that the United States government spent billions of dollars just to develop a pen that could write in space, while the Russians just used a pencil. But what is the idea behind the space pen, and why is it so special?
NASA astronauts use a “space pen.” It can write under extreme temperature conditions and in a vacuum and pure oxygen space. Researchers discovered that using graphite can be dangerous in conditions on spaceships.
Developing the Space Pen
Paul C. Fisher worked with ball bearings in airplane factories. After his stint during the second world war, he worked in a pen factory. He quickly established himself as an innovator, opening his own pen company a few years later. Fisher then got an idea of creating a pen that would not leak. (Source: History of Pencils)
Fisher invested about $1 million of his own money in developing the pen he desired, and in 1966, he patented the very first Anti-Gravity pen he called AG7. The pen looked like any regular pen, but he developed an ingenious kind of ink. The ink was made of thixotropic gel, a material in semi-solid form, and, but the pressure is applied, the gel turns to liquid. (Source: University of Sydney)
The ink was not exposed to air. Instead of gravity, it relied on the pressure inside the cartridge to make the ink go out and allow its user to write. With this new technology, the Fisher pen can write upside down and even in conditions where there is no gravity at all. The ink would not dry up since it is not exposed to air and can also write in temperatures between -35 to 120 degrees celsius.
The ballpoint tip was constructed using tungsten carbide and was designed to fit precisely to avoid any leakage or air from getting into the pen. The reservoir has a sliding float separating the nitrogen gas and ink to prevent bubbles from forming. The pen cartridge is hermetically sealed as well. (Source: History of Pencils)
What was the Controversy between NASA and the Fisher Pen?
During the height of the space race between the US and Russia, rumors spread that the US government used millions of the taxpayers’ money to develop a pen that could write in space when they found out that regular pens wouldn’t work. But their Soviet counterparts simply gave their cosmonauts pencils, effectively and cheaply eliminating the problem.
However, the rumor was not valid. Because at the same time, the Fisher pen was in its development phase when NASA was looking for writing instruments for its astronauts. They initially used pencils like their Russian counterparts. NASA then ordered thirty-four mechanical pencils from Houston’s Tycam Engineering Manufacturing, Inc. Each pencil cost around $128.89, totaling $4,382.50. The price NASA paid got leaked to the public, and Americans found it ridiculous that such an amount was paid for pencils.
The second part of the rumor is that NASA invested more money in developing the space pen. However, the public didn’t know that NASA didn’t spend any money on research and development of the pen. Fisher funded the development himself.
NASA then found out that pencils were not the best writing material. Pencils posed a fire hazard to the ships since graphite, the pencil’s critical element is a good conductor of electricity. They hypothesized that if the tip of the pencil broke or astronauts sharpened it, graphite fragments may float throughout the shuttle and find themselves in places where it could start a fire.
When NASA caught wind of Fisher’s technology, they immediately ordered 400 pens they intended to use in their Apollo program. The Russians followed suit, ordering 100 pens and 1,000 ink cartridges for their Soyuz missions. Both space agencies enjoyed a 40% discount for purchasing in bulk, bringing the price of a Fisher pen to just $2.39. (Source: Scientific American)