Here’s the story: during the 1960s as NASA was sending the first astronauts to space, they realized that pens don’t work in zero gravity (or actually microgravity), so they spent years and many millions of taxpayer dollars to develop a “space pen”, which means a pen that can write in the microgravity. Meanwhile, the Soviet cosmonauts simply used pencils.
As Curious Droid pointed out in the video below, “the moral of the story to many is that NASA was a wasteful government organization that would be giving your hard-earned tax dollars to some greedy contractors charging sky-high prices for seemingly trivial objects whereas the enemy (the Soviet Union) was common sense and practical.”
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The “space pen” story 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 end. The fixed price contract purchased 34 units at a total cost of $4,382.50, or $128.89 per unit. That created something of a controversy at the time, as many people believed it was a frivolous expense. NASA backtracked immediately and equipped the astronauts with less costly items.
What’s more, as the pencil posed many threats in space (i.e. microgravity conditions), both NASA and the Soviets were looking for an alternative to it. 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.
- The graphite also had a tendency to cause explosions or a fire in the oxygen-rich atmosphere of a spacecraft, due to the graphite particles. There was also a risk of fire due to the wood or wood particles that are used in these pencils.
- Wood shavings and graphite from normal pencils, and also ink from normal pens can float around and create debris.
Million-dollar space pen
During this time period, the 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 dollars, and made 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 the vacuum, underwater, in other liquids, and in temperature extremes ranging from -50 °F (-45.5 °C) to +400 °F (204 °C) (See notes 1). It can also write any angle on almost any surface.
And here is the point: Fisher developed his space pen with no NASA funding, nor was he contracted with the space agency. The company spent reportedly $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 its approach. In 1967, after rigorous tests, NASA managers agreed to equip the 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).
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. It was 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. Velcro patches were added along with a standard metal clip to facilitate the storage and attachment of the pen.
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 will break off and floated around the cabin.
Both American astronauts and Soviet/Russian cosmonauts have continued to use these pens. The space pen went on to be a staple of not only space missions but also many other industries too.
“So, the American space pen was better than the Soviet pencil? Yes, it was. Did it cost NASA a million dollars? No, it didn’t.”
- According to NASA. In the video, Paul Shillito aka Curious Droid gives a range between -50 °F (-45.5 °C) to 160 °F (71 °C), which actually makes more sense. The producer gives the range as -30 °F to +250 °F (-34.5 °C to +121 °C).