In the 1960s, when the Soviet Union and the United States were involved in the space race, one problem they faced was how astronauts could write in the vacuum of space. Many people have had the frustrating experience of trying to write with a biro upside down, and having to shake the thing violently in the hope of making it work. However, the first astronauts had enough to think about without worrying whether their pens would function when they wanted to jot down important data or needed to work on vital calculations. And remember this was before the days of the pocket calculator. They couldn’t just punch in figures and push a button for the answer; they had to do their sums the hard way — by writing them down.
So, the story goes, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) set to with its customary vigour, and a reported $2 million later, the “astronaut pen” was born. Meanwhile, the wily Russians solved the problem much more cheaply.
They used a pencil.
A charming tale, the moral of which is that costly high-tech solutions are often looked for, when inexpensive, simple and sensible ones are already available.
However, the story isn’t true. First, although NASA was certainly aware of the problem of writing in space, no one was paid to solve it on their behalf. And second, Soviet and American astronauts used pencils on their early flights.
Yet pencils in space can cause problems. The leads can break, and pose a danger as they float around the capsule, not only to the astronauts’ eyes and noses, but to the delicate electrical systems, potentially causing a fatal short. Moreover, pencils are made of wood and graphite, which burn quickly in a pure oxygen environment, and all space programmes were concerned about fires, especially after the tragic accident on 27 January 1967, in which Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger Chaffee were burned to death during a pre-launch test for Apollo 1.
During their Gemini missions in the early years of space travel, the Americans used mechanical pencils — the kind that don’t need sharpening — but writing with those produces fine graphite dust that conducts electricity — not something that’s desirable in a tiny capsule crammed with complex circuitry.
The Soviets, meanwhile, abandoned traditional pencils in favour of ‘grease’ pencils, used with plastic slates. But the slates came with paper shrouds to be peeled back as and when needed — what was to be done with the discarded paper?
Then along came Paul C. Fisher (1913—2006), an American politician and inventor who ran for the Democratic Party presidential nomination in 1960 and again in 1968. He recognised the problem, and set about solving it.
In July 1965, Fisher came up with a pressurised ball pen — and there could be no dangerous spillages floating around the capsule, because the ink was sealed inside a cartridge. The ink was special, too — the consistency of thick rubber cement, which doesn’t ooze. Unlike most ballpoint pens, it worked in zero-gravity, and within a temperature range of —120°F to +250°F. It could write on virtually any surface, including butter (!), and even worked underwater (not usually necessary in space, but the re-entry capsules did land in the sea). He patented it and sent it off to NASA.
NASA didn’t take his word for what he claimed it could do. The boffins at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston put it through a thorough range of tests before approving it for use in space in September 1965. It was called the AG7 (the AG standing for ‘anti-gravity’), and first went into space on Apollo 7.
The Soviets adopted the Fisher Space Pen a couple of years later.
In 1998, I had the fabulous opportunity of working on a Russian nuclear-powered icebreaker — Sovetskiy Soyuz — while it crunched its way through the ice of the Arctic Ocean to the North Pole. A massively powerful vessel launched in 1990 to keep the shipping lanes north of Siberia clear of ice, even during the winter, in July 1998, Sovetskiy Soyuzwas instead taking tourists to the most northerly point of the Earth.
The voyage took two weeks, and one of those aboard was Buzz Aldrin, who, with Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins, had participated in the Apollo 11 mission to the Moon. Two of my most treasured possessions are a signed photograph of Buzz on the Moon — the famous one of him standing in full spacesuit with photographer Neil Armstrong reflected in his visor — and the Fisher Space Pen he gave me.
The pen is the ‘400 — Chrome Bullet Space Pen’, less than four inches long when closed, which comes in a nice box complete with a leaflet about the Fisher Space Pen and its history. To make it even more special, Buzz had it engraved:
North Pole July 1998
The leaflet included a quote by Paul Fisher, which reads:
"On July 19th 1984 at a NASA dinner held at the Windsor Court Hotel, New Orleans, Louisiana to commemorate the 15th anniversary of man’s first landing on the Moon, Dr Buzz Aldrin confirmed to me that they had used the Fisher Space Pen as a tool to turn on the broken switch which activated the jets to propel the Lunar Module from the surface of the Moon. They were thereby able to rejoin the Apollo 11 and return safely to Earth."
Well, you can’t believe everything you read, so I asked Buzz whether it was true. He said it was, and added a few more details. Apparently, after he and Neil Armstrong had finished their work on the surface, and were climbing back into the Lunar Module (the bit designed to ferry them from the spacecraft to the Moon and back again), one of their life-support backpacks brushed against a switch and broke it. It was an important switch — the one that would turn on the engine, so they could blast off from the Moon and rejoin the main ship. If the switch couldn’t be repaired, the astronauts wouldn’t be able get off the surface, and the magnificent success of the Moon landing would turn into a tragedy.
A message was quickly sent to Houston, where teams of scientists rushed to work on the problem. It transpired that all that was needed was to flick a metal strip to one side, but the crew had left all their tools on the main spacecraft, in order to save weight on the Lunar Module.
But they had their Fisher Space Pens.
Houston told Buzz to retract the ball point, and use the hollow end to flick the metal part of the switch into the necessary position. He did, the engine fired, and the rest is history.
The journey to the North Pole was memorable in many ways — polar bears lumbering over ice floes, seals basking in the 24-hour daylight, seabirds gliding effortlessly over vast expanses of white ocean, and the great engines of Sovetskiy Soyuz grinding their way though ice ten feet thick as though it was made of butter — but the conversations with Buzz Aldrin will always remain a highlight. And my ‘non-skip, textured tungsten-carbide ball encased in a stainless steel ball socket’ with its ‘sealed ink cartridge pressurised at about 45 pounds per square inch’ and containing ‘visco-elastic, thixotropic, solid-gel ink’, which sits in a glass cupboard in my office, will always remind me of them.
By Susanna Gregory - Carmarthenshire-based Susanna Gregory is the author of several historical crime fiction novels, including her Matthew Bartholomew and Thomas Chaloner series, of which the newest title 'Murder on High Holborn' is now available to buy. Explore more of Susanna’s work here.
NB. Although we don't sell the Fisher Space pen, we do have a wide range of pressurised 'space' pens and refills available, such as the Tombow Airpress. While the technology ensures they can write in zero-G, this is not something most of us will ever get to test unfortunately, but there are other benefits! Pressurised pens can write upside-down, in low and high temperatures as well as on greasy or wet paper. See our complete collection of pressurised pens here- Cult Pens
1 July 2013