Deconstructing a Myth
From dashing off a quick note to creating painstaking calligraphy, we often take writing for granted. But in space, where the stakes are high, how does one write? After all, the ink in pens isn’t held down by gravity, so how do you write upside down?
This is a question that some have pondered since the United States and the Russians sought to reach space first. There’s a rumor that the United States spent $12 billion developing a pen that would function in space because normal ballpoint pens were not reliable in zero gravity, while the Soviets used a pencil.
While it might make for a good parable — after all, simple solutions often work better than costly, high-tech ones — the story is false.
In fact, both the Soviets and the Americans used pencils on spaceflights. Starting with Project Gemini, NASA’s second human spaceflight program, pencils were attached via retractable strings to the walls of the command module. The astronauts used these writing utensils in space to write mission reports, conduct post-mission analysis, or record anomalies on fireproof paper. The pencils were generally safe to use, but they came at a huge cost: NASA paid $4,382.50 for 34 mechanical pencils from Tycam Engineering Manufacturing in Houston, or $128.89 per pencil.
Inventing a Zero Gravity Pen
Inventor Paul Fisher would provide more options with standardized, innovative pens. Unsatisfied with the state of ballpoint pens in the 1950s, which all took different cartridges and often leaked, he decided to invent a universal refill that would fit in most pens. Then he took it a step further and created a refill using semisolid thixotropic ink to create a pen in which the ink would turn from a gel into a liquid when the writer applied pressure. The nitrogen in the pen pressurized the ink cartridge, enabling writing in any direction. It seemed like a perfect fit for astronauts who needed to write notes on flight logs while weightless in space, so Fisher offered to supply these pens to NASA in 1965.
Pens and Safety
When testing the pens, NASA had to keep in the mind the tragic Apollo 1 test mission in 1967, which killed three astronauts when a fire blazed through the command module. The space agency learned that even a single spark could cause a fire in a 100 percent oxygen environment. Every material object on a spacecraft, including seemingly mundane writing instruments, had to be retooled for travel into space.
“NASA made sure everything on board was not dangerous,” said curator Jennifer Levasseur, who curates small astronaut equipment. “In that kind of atmosphere, anytime there’s a spark, anything that could serve as a fuel would catch really quickly.”
After rigorous tests, NASA decided to purchase 400 pens at a cost of $6 each (a 40 percent discount) for the 1967 Apollo 7 mission, fulfilling both cost and safety requirements. Modifying them for space, NASA wrapped them in Velcro so they could stick to the astronaut’s suits or the walls for easy access. The Soviet Union also decided to upgrade their writing utensils. They purchased 100 Fisher pens and 1,000 ink cartridges for use on its Soyuz spaceflights; beforehand, the Soviet astronauts used grease pencils.
Possibly wanting even more variety, astronauts also brought felt-tip pens — they work much like Sharpies — from the Duro Space Company of Brooklyn, New ork, on the Apollo missions.
How a Pen Saved the Apollo 11 Mission
Pens in space not only recorded information, they even helped astronauts get off the Moon. In his book Magnificent Desolation, Buzz Aldrin recounted that he couldn’t turn on the ascent module to get off the Moon on the 1969 Apollo 11 mission. The circuit breaker that turned the engine on had broken. He had no idea what to do. Houston’s mission control didn’t either. But he had a felt tip pen made by the Duro Pen Company attached with a small piece of Velcro to the shoulder pocket in his coveralls. After a sleepless night, Aldrin had an eureka moment: he realized he could insert the pen where the small circuit breaker should have been. “We were going to get off the Moon, after all,” wrote Aldrin. Even mundane objects can be used for extraordinary things.
The Future of Pens in Space
If you want a piece of history, mere earthbound mortals can buy an “Original Astronaut Space Pen” for $59 today. But in the future, will these pens become artifacts or will they remain vital tools in space? It’s unclear. “They do use laptops extensively, so it’s entirely possible that they are generating most their documentation electronically and sending them via email,” Levesseur said of astronauts working at the International Space Station. Some are probably old fashioned, however, and still like to keep hand-written notes, or draw or sketch up there, she added.
Even if pens no longer go up in space, they will still have a special place in the heart of at least one astronaut. After all, you might say that the Buzz Aldrin’s felt-tip pen may have saved the Apollo 11 mission.