How do astronauts write in space?

The space pen.  

Legend has it that during the height of the space race in the 1960s, NASA scientists figured that pens could not function in space. So, they spent millions of dollars developing a pen that could write in space, while their Soviet counterparts used the humble pencil.

This story has been floating around the Internet for way too long. However, it is just a myth.

The truth

According to NASA historians, NASA astronauts also used pencils. In 1965, NASA ordered 34 mechanical pencils from Houston's Tycam Engineering Manufacturing, Inc. at the rate of $128.89 per pencil. When the public got to know about these rates, there was an outcry, and NASA had to find something much cheaper for its astronauts to use.

The pencil loses out

The pencil wasn’t an ideal choice for writing in space because its tip could flake and break off, drifting in microgravity with the potential to harm an astronaut or an equipment. Apart from this, pencils are flammable, and NASA wanted to avoid anything flammable aboard a spacecraft.

And the pen?

Regular pens that work on Earth did not work in space because they rely on gravity for the flow of ink to the nib. This was understood quite early by scientists and hence astronauts used pencils. But with both the pencil and the pen creating issues, what did NASA finally resort to?

The saviour

Around the time NASA was embroiled in the mechanical pencils controversy, Paul C. Fisher of the Fisher Pen Co. designed a ballpoint pen that could work in space. His company invested one million dollars to fund, design, and patent the pen on its own.

Fisher’s pen operated seamlessly, not just in space, but also in a weightless environment, underwater, in other liquids, and in temperatures ranging from -50 F to +400 F.

The company offered the pen to NASA, but the space agency was hesitant to buy it due to the mechanical pencil controversy.

However, a few years later, after rigorous testing, NASA agreed to equip its astronauts with the space pen. The space agency bought 400 pens from Fisher. And a year later, the Russians also ordered 100 pens and 1,000 ink cartridges to use on their Soyuz space missions. Both NASA and the Soviet space agency received a 40% discount on bulk purchase of the pens, paying about $2.39 per pen.

Over the years, Fisher’s company has created different space pens, which are still used by NASA and the Soviet space agency.

If you would like to get your hands on one of these space pens, it would cost you approximately $50.

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Printable version | May 18, 2021 7:42:33 AM |

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