Join 3,512 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Writes upside down!
January 17, 2013 8:48 PM   Subscribe

The Smithsonian Magazine breaks down the history of the Fisher Space Pen, including the old myth about how the Russians just used pencils instead.
posted by mathowie (37 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite

 
Make sure you click on that first link about President Obama's favorite pen -- it's not what you think it is.
posted by spiderskull at 8:50 PM on January 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Someone gave me a compact version of this pen about ten years ago and I still have it in my car and it works and I use it every few days and it's pretty amazing, so I was stoked to find this history of the pen today.
posted by mathowie at 8:51 PM on January 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


Yep, I have the "compact" model as well. The ink really is great. I've yet to find a surface it can't handle, including glass.
posted by ShutterBun at 9:01 PM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


It can write on butter! Why don't more people do that?
posted by roger ackroyd at 9:02 PM on January 17, 2013 [6 favorites]


They're pretty great pens. I just got the matte black version of this one.
posted by Doleful Creature at 9:05 PM on January 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Take the pen.
posted by pmurray63 at 9:13 PM on January 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


But did we even need a space pen in the first place? It’s said that Russia’s answer to the same problem was the pencil, bringing to mind the old Russian saying: “better is the enemy of good enough.”

It's a real shame the Russian solution hadn't turned out to be the superior one, because "Better is the enemy of good enough" is a fantastic motto.
posted by gompa at 9:20 PM on January 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Good enough is the enemy of maybe next time.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:43 PM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


spiderskull: "Make sure you click on that first link about President Obama's favorite pen -- it's not what you think it is."

Heh. That kicks the La Machine à Ecrire le Temps into the gutter.
posted by panaceanot at 9:47 PM on January 17, 2013


I have used so many Space Pems to death! I love them! But you know what would totally be Out Of This World Awesome? A hybrid of a Space Pen and the Bic four color pen aka Nerd Pen, preferably metal not plastic. That would rock my world!
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 9:54 PM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


And then there's Margaret Atwood's LongPen [previously].
posted by mazola at 9:57 PM on January 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


including the old myth about how the Russians just used pencils instead.

Realize that a piece of graphite between two conductors with enough current behind them becomes a light bulb. Briefly. This isn't good in sea level atmosphere, in a pure oxygen atmosphere, this is deadly. Gemini used mechanical pencils, which got rid of the wood, but left the graphite, and graphite+oxygen+spark=fire. Bad.

See Apollo 1. See Valentin Bondarenko, killed by a fire during a 15 day experiment in a low pressure, but high oxygen atmosphere.

Why did both the US and USSR do this? Why all the oxygen? Simple. They were afraid of the bends. Decompression sickness was very well known. Keeping a capsule at one atmosphere was *hard*. That's 15 pounds per square inch, multiply by the thousands of square inches that make up the inside of a pressure vessel that can hold a man, and you're looking at a staggering amount of force. It was even worse with capsules that could hold more than one person. So, you wanted lower pressure. But you take a person from a one atmosphere pressure into, say, a .3 atmosphere, or 15 PSI into 5 PSI, that -- to the nitrogen in their blood, is like going from a 45PSI atmosphere to normal. Instant decompression sickness!

So, the first thought. Get rid of the nitrogen. A 5PSI all oxygen atmosphere has just as much oxygen as air does at 15PSI. Let's just use 5PSI O2. Bonus -- to repressurize the spacecraft after, say, a space walk, you didn't need to haul nitrogen with you -- just oxygen. Have the crew breath pure oxygen at sea level, to flush out the nitrogen in their bodies, switch to a low pressure pure oxygen atmosphere on orbit. No bends for the crew, much less pressure on the capsule.

It worked -- except it wasn't safe around fire. Bondarenko's accident and Apollo 1 were even worse, being pure oxygen atmospheres at 15PSI, but even at 5PSI, there was a *lot* of oxygen there for a fire. Worse, since they wanted a pure oxygen atmosphere after launch, they actual had the capsule at 17PSI, all oxygen. When the fire started, they didn't have a chance.

After Apollo 1, NASA was very much into finding, and eliminating, any source of ignition they could. One problem they fixed was the launch atmosphere. At launch, originally, they had 17PSI of oxygen, pushing against the natural 15PSI atmosphere. After Apollo 1, they changed that, by having 60% oxygen and 40% nitrogen in the capsule, bleeding it off as the pressure dropped until it hit 5PSI, then adding oxygen while the cabin slowly vented until they were confident that most of the nitrogen was gone. Then they'd close the vents. Rebuilding the capsule to handle a -10PSI differential (if they'd used the flight atmosphere of 5PSI oxygen) wasn't able to be done, and they did not want to have the 15PSI oxygen atmosphere they had in Apollo 1.

Even with that, they were worried about the bends -- so the astronauts, in their sealed suits, breathed pure oxygen until they reached orbit. Only then -- when the cabin pressure was down to 5PSI -- did they take off the helmets.

But still. 60% oxygen at 15PSI is some three times the normal partial pressure. It was imperative to make sure that fire didn't start. So, getting rid of ignition sources was critical.

And a graphite pencil? That was one of them. Fisher's pen was, to NASA's amazement, pretty much perfect. What they (and the Soviets) were looking at was grease pencils, also known as china pencils. After very throughly testing the Fisher design, they realized it was vastly safer, and a vastly better writing utensil.

So, what did NASA do? They bought them, four hundred of them, with retractable points at list price -- $2.95 in 1968 dollars. That's about $20 a throw today, in 2012 dollars, and sure enough, that's basically what they cost today. The pen was so good that the Soviets, once they found out about it in 1969, they bought it 100 of them at list price as well.

Apparently, it took Fisher Pens (Now Fisher Space Pens) some four years to make an actual profit on the design. Between the research and the actual manufacturing cost, they weren't making much per item, and think about it, a $20 pen, when ballpoints are basically just lying about?

Well, if you need a pen, that works, even in bizarre situations, and *will not catch fire*, well, then, I can only suggest you look to Fisher Space Pens, Inc. They solved that problem back in 1967.

The funny thing? The pen known today as the Fisher Space Pen wasn't the pen NASA acquired. They were looking at a different model, at the time, one that cost $4.00 -- the AG7. This, in fact, was the model they bought, as the Data Recording Pen. They got a discount by order 400 of them in the first batch.

NASA, and the Soviet Space Agency, never actually bought the pen that Fisher called The Space Pen. Why? The idea with that unit was you took the cap off the short pen, put it on the other end, and that made it a full length stylus. NASA was afraid the cap would fly off -- so they bought the AG7, which was a retractable.

Later on, they ended up buying mechanical pencils again -- but they still buy the AG7, and many astronauts, cosmonauts and takionauts have hauled their own Space Pens onto orbit.
posted by eriko at 9:57 PM on January 17, 2013 [145 favorites]


Make sure you click on that first link about President Obama's favorite pen -- it's not what you think it is.


My first exercise of my political rights as a native-born American citizen was in middle school, writing jeremiads about how annoying and simplistic I thought standardized tests were to my members of Congress. My parents found out about this when mysterious franked mail came home addressed to their son, which at first was some of the most alarming mail they had ever received. The most exciting part of those letters was that they seemed to be signed by the Congressman himself! Wow!

This was my letter to Santa. My parents never bothered to try to convince me Santa was real.

Soon after I was volunteering on my first presidential campaign at the national headquarters (being quite far from Iowa or New Hampshire), my duties were to sort incoming mail, punch them into the database, and serve as office mascot. One day I was sent down a floor with one of the young women in charge of volunteer herding to make some photocopies. Next to the copier was a funny-looking desk with metal arms sticking out of it, so I asked the eternally cheerful staffer what it was. She told me it was an "autopen."

What? What's an autopen??

Sitting before me was an ancient Autopen Model 80, yellowed with age, an analog model the size of a school desk that was governed by huge plastic disks with a signature embedded. Noting my confusion, she picked up the ring, loaded it in, and stuck a sticky note under the pen and gave it a go. The old Autopen 80 whirred and clunked--nothing at all like the new digital models, there was actual heft in this noise--and produced a perfect copy of the candidate's signature in blue felt tip.

This was my first inkling that perception and reality weren't really linked.

This didn't shake my faith enough to get me out of the political weeds, which was the first sign my moral compass was pointing me to a life in the business. I still insist on signing every piece of mail that goes out in blue felt tip.
posted by Hollywood Upstairs Medical College at 10:03 PM on January 17, 2013 [21 favorites]


I've had this little matte black bullet space pen for decades. I've lost and tossed a gazillion pens over the years but this thing with no clip or reason to hang around has stayed with me, partly because it often lurks forgotten in the black lining of a handbag, is just weighty enough to stay in a pocket and not fall out on the streetcar, and probably just because it loves me.
posted by Anitanola at 10:06 PM on January 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


I had no idea that those capsules were 100% oxygen environments until I read it here. Those were some brave dudes. Thanks eriko for the background.
posted by peeedro at 10:07 PM on January 17, 2013 [1 favorite]


Good enough is the enemy of progress.
posted by notyou at 10:32 PM on January 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Not good enough is the father of progress.
posted by TwelveTwo at 10:41 PM on January 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


Although it's not as sexy, I've ultimately had better luck with Uni-ball's Power Tank series of pressurized pens/refills than Fisher's (I've owned a Fisher for about seven years). They write equally well in bizarre conditions (upside down, underwater, etc.), but the Power Tank definitely delivers a finer and a smoother line. Currently on my third refill on one pen (over the course of about 18 months).
posted by CustooFintel at 10:46 PM on January 17, 2013 [4 favorites]


The space pen actually has a lot of metaphoric power in the film Three Idiots (full movie!), the highest grossing Bollywood film of all time. The question of why not simply use pencils in space plagues the film (they come to the actual correct conclusion -- that broken graphite tips can be a real problem floating around in space.) The passing of a space pen from one character to another represents a conclusive moment in the plot, when characters who had previously been antagonists demonstrate a hard-won respect for each other.

I mention this most of all just because I like this film. I mean, it has the song Zoobi Doobi in it.
posted by Bunny Ultramod at 10:50 PM on January 17, 2013 [8 favorites]


space pocket-protectors

You know it's your favorite band.
posted by trip and a half at 11:41 PM on January 17, 2013


And for the budding astronaut there's always the Fischer Price 'lil Astronaut Pen.
posted by littlesq at 12:09 AM on January 18, 2013


Have one in my pocket. Christmas present from my wife. Love it.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 12:24 AM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


Although it's not as sexy, I've ultimately had better luck with Uni-ball's Power Tank series of pressurized pens/refills than Fisher's (I've owned a Fisher for about seven years). They write equally well in bizarre conditions (upside down, underwater, etc.), but the Power Tank definitely delivers a finer and a smoother line. Currently on my third refill on one pen (over the course of about 18 months).


Yeah the uni-ball power-tanks are really great. They look dorky but work great. And they're not expensive either.
posted by Authorized User at 12:31 AM on January 18, 2013


Eriko, that's fascinating! I always assumed Space Pen rather than a pencil because of the waste issues that arise from shavings.
posted by Sara C. at 12:47 AM on January 18, 2013


It’s said that Russia’s answer to the same problem was the pencil, bringing to mind the old Russian saying: “better is the enemy of good enough.” But wood and lead shavings in a zero-gravity, oxygen-rich environment can be incredibly dangerous, liable to interfere with instruments or catch on fire.
I present to you: the retractable pencil = Problem solved
posted by 0bvious at 3:57 AM on January 18, 2013


Mods are asleep! Post ponies pens!
posted by Slap*Happy at 4:17 AM on January 18, 2013


it's not what you think it is.

tl;dnr

Let me guess, rather than blue ink it uses red ink?
posted by rough ashlar at 5:36 AM on January 18, 2013


I had always assumed the Russian pencil story to be true because it fit all the stereotypes we were taught about them. And it made sense, in its way, as long as you didn't understand the unique conditions they operated in. Science trumps ideology.
posted by tommasz at 5:44 AM on January 18, 2013


the retractable pencil = Problem solved
See above: Gemini used mechanical pencils, which got rid of the wood, but left the graphite, and graphite+oxygen+spark=fire. Bad.
posted by MtDewd at 5:46 AM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


I carry a Space Pen in my pocket every day. I love it!

That said, I thought that this story was well-known so I kind of skimmed it. But I wondered for the first time about the ability to "write underwater": what are they writing on that still functions underwater?

Styrene planks? Plastic sheets? Wood tablets? The only paper I know that goes underwater without pulping is maybe Rite In The Rain paper, or something like Tyvek that isn't actually paper.
posted by wenestvedt at 6:37 AM on January 18, 2013


I've used Rite-in-the-Rain notebooks outdoors, in the rain and ocean spray, with a space pen. Works pretty well.
posted by Slap*Happy at 6:52 AM on January 18, 2013


I've always wanted a Space Pen so I could scribble notes in my hover car. When is the future going to catch up with my childhood expectations?
posted by arcticseal at 7:39 AM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]


"Fisher did not charge NASA for the cost of developing the pen, and the Fisher pen was eventually used by both American and Soviet astronauts."

I always loved this fact; in the middle of the cold war, with the space race being a proxy form of brinkmanship-in-place-of-combat, the space pen united both sides in a desire not to see our astronauts and cosmonauts killed because of a stupid pencil starting a fire.

I like the idea that, while the politicians played their games, the engineers were mostly interested in doing what they reasonably could to keep people safe.
posted by quin at 8:12 AM on January 18, 2013


Good enough is good enough.
posted by digsrus at 8:52 AM on January 18, 2013



My family each won a Space Pen in 1967 after being the largest group to show up to help paint a mural on a wall downtown (my Dad could always find these awesome, free things to do). There were 4 of us, so I guess they didn't have too many takers.

I too have a Space Pen in the glove box of my car. Because when you need a pen, you need to count on it having ink and being able to write.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 12:54 PM on January 18, 2013


I got my space pen when I went to the National Air and Space museum as a astronomy/cosmology obsessed 10-year-old. I still have it. It has been one of my prized possessions for many years. Thanks for the post :)
posted by Cygnet at 1:40 PM on January 18, 2013 [2 favorites]


I grew up in Boulder City, Nevada, home of the Fisher Space Pen company. Boulder City is just a small town. At that time, in the 70's, only about 5000 people lived there, and I know several people that worked in the plant at one time or another.

Mr. Fisher was a semi-regular guest at the elementary school. During career day or some other pretext to have him there, he would arrive with a big box and talk about his business and the space program. At that time it was common for kids to aspire to be astronauts, and he was always a big hit. I remember him as a nice man with white hair who was very patient with all the kids asking a lot of astronaut questions and virtually no pen questions.

And every single time, at the end of his visit, he would dip into his big box and distribute space pens to every single child. I had some of them for literally decades. None of us ever became astronauts, though.
posted by nedpwolf at 5:00 PM on January 18, 2013 [7 favorites]


« Older DJ /rupture has made "8+ hours of mixes" available...  |  "When the National Football Le... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments