Zero Gravity Bureaucracy: The Real Story

When NASA first started sending astronauts to space, they knew ballpoint pens would not work in zero gravity.

Now, the way the joke usually goes, you’re told that to combat this problem, NASA scientists spent a decade and millions of dollars developing a pen that writes in zero gravity, upside-down, on almost any surface including glass, and at temperatures ranging from –30 to over 250 degrees.

Meanwhile, the joke goes, the Russians used a pencil.

Yeah, well “ha ha.” But This is True is different, since I think the truth is usually better.

What really happened is pencils aren’t ideal for space flight, since they’re flammable, a broken-off point could be dangerous floating around the cabin (where it could be inhaled by astronauts), and sharpening it would create even more floating debris.

Even a mechanical pencil has the problem with broken off leads, but that’s what NASA started with in the first place.

Then a private American citizen, Paul C. Fisher, figured out a way to make a pen that would work in zero gravity — and he did it without any government funding whatever.

Fisher submitted his Fisher Space Pen to NASA for testing. NASA loved Fisher’s pen and adopted it in 1965, buying hundreds of them for use on spaceflights. (Dryly, NASA called it the “Data Recording Pen”.) The pens are still available today *.

One of many of the company’s marketing angles. Truth sells.

Since it would also write upside-down on Earth, regular people loved them too. The Fisher Space Pen Company, which is still based in Nevada, went on to make millions of dollars per year on the invention, and Fisher retired quite wealthy. (He died in 2006 at the age of 93.)

And the funny part? Not only did this brilliant bit of American capitalist ingenuity make Fisher a millionaire, but his pen was also adopted by — yes! — Russia’s space program.

[Adapted from my original text published 5 February 2010 in the True Story section of my now defunct Jumbo Joke site.]

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9 Comments on “Zero Gravity Bureaucracy: The Real Story

  1. Wonderful pens! I bought one with a little gold plated space shuttle on the clip when I visited the Space Centre Houston back in 2012. Made the mistake of putting Johnson Space Centre in my navigation … and I’ll tell you what, there is no sense of haha from the guards to THAT entrance, even when they see an obviously lost Canadian license plate pull up to the gates. For the record, I realized a mistake had been made when there were armed guards instead of a parking lot.

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  2. I have one of the early “Space Pens” still in its original box. My Dad worked at NASA in the early 60’s and he got one of them while working there. Not sure if my Dad ever tested it, but I inherited it when he passed in 2012. I have never tested it but after 50 plus years since it was originally made, I would not be surprised if the ink is now dried up.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if it still worked. Make a high-quality video of you doing the test — the company will absolutely love it if it works! -rc

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  3. I’m surprised: neither astronauts nor cosmonauts use this pen because they de perfectly well with felt tip pens. It was a publicity stunt that actually worked: the inventor gifted several to NASA in order to be able to say that they used them.

    Also, ballpoint pens work correctly in free fall. It’s not April 1st right?

    You can probably write very briefly in freefall (e.g., parachute jump) because there is ink near the point, but as you use the pen the ink near the ball is used up, and the ink won’t come down to replenish the supply. You can demonstrate the problem easily by lying on your back and writing with the pen upside down for a bit. Once it peters out, turn it point-down and run it on the paper for a few seconds (“just add gravity”) and it’ll usually start writing again. With the Space Pen you can write upside down as long as there’s still ink in the pen.

    Felt-tips have volatile inks, and the writing soaks into the paper much more, often obscuring what’s printed or written on the back. Plus, for the same reason the writing can’t be as small/fine. Far from ideal.

    As the story clearly says, NASA purchased hundreds of the Fischer Space Pens for use in space and, I’ve been told by friends at NASA (I used to work there) that they were still used as recently as the Shuttle era (I haven’t asked lately; a lot of them have retired by now). I can’t think of any reason why they wouldn’t use them on the Space Station, but can think of quite a few reasons as to why they would.

    See this page for one confirming reference at nasa.gov. I’ve asked the History Division at NASA HQ if it is still accurate and will add the reply here. -rc

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  4. I bought a Fisher Space Pen at the beginning of my law enforcement career in 1973. I used that same pen until I retired in 2000. I have no idea how many refills I went through, but obviously quite a few. I still have that pen nearly 50 years later.

    Awesome! Amazing you didn’t lose it in 27 years. -rc

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  5. Fascinating story. The weird thing for me, is that I’ve heard ‘the myth’ many times over the years, but the pen-maker in the story over here (UK) has always been Papermate. Every time.

    How strange. Well, I guess you can now point them to this page. -rc

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    • As a child I nagged my parents to get a Fischer Space Pen and it paid off eventually. Sadly, I have no idea where it ended up.

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  6. Papermate did make a ball point pen in the 60’s that had a pump mechanism at the top of the ink cartridge which pressurized the cartridge each time the pen was clicked to extend or retract the point. As I recall it was advertised as being capable of writing when the pen was upside down. I owned one and used it for at least 10 years. I still have the pen but the cartridges are no longer available as far as I know. I do not recall ever testing it to see it it actually was capable of writing with the pen upside down. It was effective in that if it ever stopped writing because the ink was not in contact with the ball all that was necessary was to click it several times and unless the cartridge was empty it would start writing again.

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  7. I was given a Fisher pen in the early 70’s while I was in junior high. It was the only pen I ever used until college into the 80’s. I used it so much that I actually wore the outer metal shell of the pen so thin it finally split. I literally wore that pen out. Best pen I ever owned.

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  8. Make a long story short: I met a Fisher Space Pen employee while at a Space Tourism event. He told me this story (which I know part of the story (switch snapped off) is true; I assume this is also true):

    Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong were ready to start the LEM engine to return to the Apollo. Buzz was turning in the tight space and accidently snapped of the switch (breaker) to start the LEM motors.

    They reported this to Mission Control, who alerted the engineer in charge of the LEM. He immediately snapped the breaker off.

    He was wearing what the astronauts were wearing, complete with the Space Pen. He looked at the shaft, its diameter, and pulled out the Space Pen. The end looked the right size. He used the Pen to push the breaker. They relayed this to the LEM. Buzz tried it. This is only one reason the Apollo mission was successful.

    Fisher Space Pen is very proud of that.

    Note: Buzz talks about this on Youtube.

    Reply

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