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.
Everyone 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.
So 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.
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.
Along 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.
The 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.
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.
Also 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:
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.
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