During the heyday of the Space Race, NASA, and the technology sector was challenged to create a pen that could write effectively in zero gravity. The private sector actually came through and invented it. The result of hundreds of hours of research, several prototypes, and the eventual real-world testing protocols of a zero gravity environment led to the creation of The Space Pen.
The old joke goes “The Americans spent millions of dollars creating a pen that can write in zero gravity. The Russians used a pencil.”
While this is a lighthearted jest that pokes fun at the tenacious efforts made by American scientists to create the pen (versus the simple Russian solution), the fact is that pencils don’t really work in space. When astronauts use pencils, the fine graphite dust that is emitted while writing with a pencil finds its way into the inner workings of sensitive equipment. Zero gravity can also drive broken pencil tips into switchgear and other critical parts, too. Plus, documentation was neither neat nor permanent using pencils, so the need for a ballpoint pen that can write in a zero gravity environment was real.
The Space Pen, also known as the Fisher Space Pen (after creator Paul C. Fisher), is manufactured in Boulder, Nevada and has been used on many missions aboard the space shuttle and on the international space station. The pen uses a pressurized cartridge that takes standard ink refills – the former feature allows it to write at any angle and in a zero gravity. NASA reportedly purchased 400 of these specialized pens in 1967 for just $2.95 each! As one can imagine, the price for a Space Pen today is substantially higher.
The Space Pen is a marvel of engineering and points to the fact that even a simple writing instrument can quite literally write its way into the pages of history.