According to aerospace lore, in the 1960s NASA realized pens could not write in space due to decreased gravity. Since astronauts needed a way to jot down information, NASA invested years and millions of dollars into developing a pen that could write under extreme conditions, such as those in space. However, on the other side of the globe, the Russians figured out they could just use pencils.
This story, intended to illustrate American’s spendthrift and frivolous nature, is actually false in many respects. NASA did not in fact invest money into making a space pen. Rather, a man named Paul Fisher, an American inventor and politician, invested approximately one million dollars of private money into research and development of this pen.
Additionally, pencils were not such a simple solution to the writing-in-space problem. Normal pencils could not be used because their lead could flake off and affect the machinery. Pencils were also extremely flammable in space and thus potentially hazardous. As a result, before the invention of the space pen, NASA spent over one hundred dollars per pencil for mechanical pencils that were more effective in space.
The space pen works in numerous conditions: upside down, from -50oF to 400oF, in a vacuum, and underwater. The pen’s unique design allows for this versatility. Pressurized nitrogen – 35 pounds per square inch of it – is used to push the ink forward. The pressurized nitrogen also prevents the air and ink from mixing within the pen so that the ink does not evaporate before use. When the ballpoint moves, the gelatinous ink within the pen becomes liquid.
The space pen began to be used in NASA spaceflights starting in 1967. It had great commercial success, and Paul Fischer became renowned as its creator. The pen was even used by the Soviet Union in their Soyuz mission. Today, Fisher continues to sell space pens to space agencies and private citizens alike.