Space: The Stationery Frontier

Space is big. Really big. You just won't believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly big it is. I mean, you may think it's a long way down the road to the chemist, but that's just peanuts to space.

--Douglas Adams

SpaceEveryone knows the story already, so we don't need to tell you. But if we don't, you'll just be waiting for it to come up. So we'll get it out of the way right now. Ballpoint pens don't write in space, because they need gravity to feed the ink. So NASA invested millions of dollars and years of work to develop a pen with a pressurised refill that would work without gravity. The Russians used a pencil.

But it's not true. For a number of reasons.

  • NASA didn't develop the Space Pen - Paul Fisher did. He did spend quite a bit of money on it, then NASA bought the pens for quite reasonable prices, and the Fisher company sold lots of pens, at least partly based on the publicity they got from their pens being used in space. It was a win for all concerned.
  • Pencils aren't as good an idea as they seem. They do work in space, perfectly well. But if you snap the tip, you have a tiny fragment of graphite floating around in the air. Graphite conducts electricity. One pencil tip floating into the wrong switch could cause serious problems, in a place where you absolutely do not want serious problems.
  • Both Americans and Russians used pencils in the early days.
  • The Pentel Sign Pen was used on early space missions - a fibre-tipped pen. They work perfectly without gravity too.
  • Oh, and astronauts on the ISS also use standard ballpoint pens. They do generally work ok, as long as gravity isn't actually working against them. Doing a crossword while lying on your back is more of a problem for a ballpoint than zero gravity. The Space Pen made them rather more reliable in space, but they were usable.

Field Notes - Mercury MissionSo much for that story, then. But we're in the mood to talk about space, and we're a pen shop, so we're definitely going to find an excuse. Let's start with Field Notes.

Yes, it's true that there's no need for a special notebook in space. Paper doesn't fail when there's no gravity, as long as you can prevent your notebook from floating in a most peculiar way. But that doesn't mean notebooks don't want to get in on the astro-action.

Field Notes Three Missions

One of the things that got us wanting to talk about space was the announcement of the latest Field Notes edition for Summer 2018. It's a set of three notebooks covering the big three space projects that lead to the moon landing: Mercury, Gemini and Apollo.

Field Notes - Gemini MissionField Notes - Apollo MissionAlong with three really nice notebooks, with graph paper inside, and beautiful full-colour prints of the NASA missions on the outside, you get a set of three papercraft projects. You can make the crew modules from those three missions, so you can play at landing the Gemini crew safely back down on your desk at work, or maybe try a test flight of the Mercury lander from your upstairs window. Or perhaps place your carefully-made models somewhere safer, to keep them away from the risk of damage. The choice is yours. Or it will be if you buy this edition.

Us? Well, we're probably going to buy one to keep safe, and one to drop out of the window. We always need more notebooks, and any excuse to throw things out of the office window is good.

Pininfarina Segno

Pininfarina Segno Space PenThe latest answer to the Space Pen problem is almost the same as the punchline to the joke. A pencil. But, to get around the problem of lead fragments, this one doesn't use graphite 'lead'. It's an everlasting pencil, with a metal tip. If the metal alloy is just right, a metal tip can write on paper. The line is fainter than a regular pencil, like a very hard grade of lead, but it works. And it wears down so slowly it should last for a lifetime of use.

Combine that useful tip with a body designed by Pininfarina, and you get something quite special. Pininfarina have something of a reputation for knowing about design. They proved that with designs like the Ferrari 328, the Alfa Romeo Spider, and the Maserati GranTurismo. Now they're turning that expertise to writing instruments. And to make it even more special, they've made sure the Pininfarina Segno Space actually went to space, by supplying them to astronauts from the ESA and NASA, and a cosmonaut from Roscosmos.

Pressurised Ballpoints

Other solutions to the problem aside, these are what most people think of as Space Pens - ballpoint pens with pressurised refills so they can write upside-down, on damp paper, or in space. If you think of a 'normal' ballpoint refill, they're open at the other end to the tip. They need to be, so air can get in to replace the ink as it's used. As you write, gravity helps pull the ink towards the tip, so it keeps flowing. In fact, as long as there's no gravity working against it, they'll generally keep going ok anyway, but the gravity helps. In a pressurised refill, the other end is sealed up, with pressurised gas behind the ink. That keeps pushing the ink forward, so there's no need at all for gravity, and it'll even work if the gravity is against it. Major Tom wouldn't have needed the ink in his pen to be Under Pressure, but it would have helped.

The ink is thixotropic - it's quite thick and solid until it moves, then becomes more fluid. Like ketchup - it's not just a joke that ketchup won't move until you shake it, then it seems to turn into a liquid, and far too much falls out onto your dinner. It really does do that, and the ink in a space pen does the same thing - the rolling of the ball moves the ink enough for it to become more fluid, so it can flow out, and be pushed along by the pressure. When you're not writing, it's thick enough that it gets stuck around the ball, and won't leak out.

We don't currently stock the original Fisher Space Pen, but other pressurised refills are available, including ones that fit lots of different pens. If you have a pen that uses standard G2 'Parker-style' refills, you can turn it into a space pen with a Schmidt P950M Megaline refill. For compact pens and multipens that use the standard D1 refill type (slim metal refills, 67mm long) there's the tiny Schmidt 620M Megaline to do the same thing.

There's also the great Uni-ball PowerTank pen, which is a retractable ballpoint with pressurised refills, at an impressively low price. Less tough than an all-metal pen, but you won't worry about it so much if it gets lost or broken.

If you want something a bit more metal, there's the Spacetec range from Diplomat, all based around pressurised refills; and the neat Tombow XPA Outdoor Pen, with its simple extendable body.

Tombow AirpressAlso from Tombow, the Airpress is a slightly different solution to the problem, which moves the complexity out of the refill and into the pen. Instead of a compartment of pressurised gas in the end of the refill, there's a simple pump mechanism around the end, so when you push the button to extend the tip, the end of the refill is pressurised. One click is enough to provide pressure for 150m of writing. It's also a chunky and practical shape, suitable for handling comfortably even with gloves, and has a handy sprung pocket clip and lanyard loop so it's flexible about how you carry it.

But why would you want any of these anyway, if you're not planning to go into space? Well, they have some advantages here on earth too:

  • Lying on your back doing a crossword or sudoku puzzle? An ordinary ballpoint would give up. They can't take the pressure.
  • Working in messy conditions or outside. Pressurised refills work much better on dusty, damp or greasy paper. Or under water, but there are better places to write your postcards than the bottom of the swimming pool. Perfect pens for posties in Peterlee, or couriers carrying cartons carefully through Cullompton, and they'll work well in a workshop in Worksop. They'd also be good for a baker in Penzance, but that alliterates worse. We could rhyme it with the next sentence, and make it a poetic verse.
  • They work better in extreme temperatures. So pens that are Under Pressure also work well in Hot Space. The Schmidt refills mentioned above say they'll keep working up to 200 degrees C. If you're somewhere in that sort of temperature range, we'd recommend moving quite urgently to somewhere cooler, and not just for the sake of your pen. They do also work down to minus 20, though, which might be a bit more practically useful.

Pentel Sign Pen in astronaut's pocketPentel Sign Pen

Before there was the Space Pen, the humble Pentel Sign Pen went to space - perhaps the most down-to-earth pen to get so far from Earth. It was already becoming hugely popular in the USA, at least in part because President Lyndon B Johnson loved them so much. But when it turned out to work just as well with no gravity, NASA grabbed them, and sent them into space in the pockets of astronauts on the Gemini 11 mission.

And the Sign Pen is still going strong today, with little in the way of changes. Pentel have sold over two billion Sign Pens, but apart from a few minor improvements, they're still the same pens that left Earth in 1966. Well, there wasn't much that needed improving, but we did find one way to make it better - a 3-for-2 offer!

The biggest change over the years is actually an addition - the standard Pentel Sign Pen was joined in recent years by the Touch Brush version. In place of the firm fibre-tip is a more flexible brush-like tip. It's still fairly firm, but flexes for more expressive marks. It's perfect for its original purpose of Japanese calligraphy, but that also makes it ideal for modern styles of Western calligraphy, with flowing words and varied line widths. The range of marks it can make, and the choice of colours, also makes it popular among artists as a convenient and more controllable alternative to a brush.

Both types are also available as sets of 12 colours.

Back Pocket SpaceX NotebooksBack Pocket Notebooks - SpaceX and Night Sky

SpaceX has quite an impressive list of achievements - it's definitely not a boring company! They've sent spacecraft up to dock with the ISS to deliver supplies, which is a good job, because while it's only 250 miles to the nearest Tesco Express, the fuel economy on the route there and back is terrible. They've landed rockets upright on mobile platforms floating in the sea. They also put a car in orbit around the sun, for some reason, which doesn't seem like the most practical place to park, but if your destination is Mars, it's actually more convenient than the NCP multi-storey in Bristol. More usefully than all that, though, they also commissioned some beautiful artwork - imaginary tourism promotions for Mars, encouraging trips to Phobos & Deimos, Valles Marineris and Olympus Mons.

They made them available to be used by anyone, so the good people at Back Pocket Notebooks jumped on the chance to turn them into a set of three notebooks. They have graph paper, but this is quality 120gsm stuff from Conqueror, with the cover designs printed on sturdy card covers from UK paper company GF Smith. They're 90x140mm, the same size as Field Notes, so they'll go in the same pockets and covers. They're printed in Brighton, and designed in London, but are perfect for planning your holiday to Mars. Or anywhere else you like, from Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads.

If you prefer something a bit less imaginary, Back Pocket Notebooks also make the Night Sky set. It's a set of two books, featuring the constellations of the Northern and Southern Hemispheres. Please note: some constellations may appear different when viewed from distances beyond 1 light year from our solar system. Notebook warranty does not cover accuracy beyond this distance, even when using a space pen (or a pencil).

And if you like the sound of those, keep an eye on Back Pocket Notebooks - they'll soon be bringing us the Solar System set - a set of nine notebooks with the sun and planets of our solar system printed on them, one per book. To scale. Otherwise they'd be rather too big to be practical. Then again, they'd also have their own gravity, which would be a handy way to attach your favourite pen or pencil to them.


16 July 2018


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