The Magical Space Pen by Fisher Pen Company

In the 1960’s at the height of the Space Race, astronauts were celebrities. Like any other celebrity they had a unique brand of hijinks they got up to and there were people waiting to decry the shocking nature of it all. By association, NASA also came under similar scrutiny and judgement.

In 1965, a big controversy was NASA ordering special mechanical pencils for use in orbit by the astronauts. The pencils cost $128 each. With a few dozen pieces ordered, that was over $4000. The outrage! Congress was getting involved and there was talk of official enquiries.

It didn’t help that while NASA was carefully selecting what was safe to be sent up with the astronauts in the form of custom made stationery, cowboy astronauts were carrying disallowed objects on their flights and bragging about it later to the media in their interviews.

When the Gemini Titan 3 went up into orbit for a few hours and returned in March that year, the story of John Young, one of the two astronauts on board, smuggling on a corned beef sandwich had everyone in a tizzy. There was an investigation by the house of representatives and NASA had to testify on the incident.

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Gemini Titan 3, Image Courtesy – Wikimedia Commons

The sandwich was not the only offending object on board. The astronauts had also carried with them an American flag, a diamond ring, some Florentine crosses and a brassiere. All this came out in the later investigation, but the unplanned underwear wasn’t the main cause of worry at NASA.

After all the fuss about the expensive pens which were correctly engineered for use by the astronauts wearing their heavy gloves and suit, what NASA really wanted kept under wraps was that there had also been some inexpensive Pentel pencils onboard. A Japanese pencil on board an all-American space mission was just too scandalous to reveal!

Thixotropic Ink and the Space Pen

As all this was in progress, quite unknown to NASA, Paul Fisher of the Fisher Pen Company was developing a special pen. He ended up spending a million dollars at the time on the project, most of it to develop the special thixotropic ink that went into the unique cartridges he’d invented. Thixotropy is the ability of some liquids to remain gel-like and only flow freely under certain pressures.

Fisher designed a pressurized cartridge which allowed the pen to write in zero gravity, upside down and even under water. He mostly wanted to offer it to NASA for publicity, which he did. The thing is, Fisher had actually produced a really good pen. After extensive testing, NASA immediately ordered a few dozen at a mere $4 a piece. The Russians ordered 100.

AG 7 Space Pen
Fisher Space Pen model AG-7 Original Astronauts. This is the pen that was used on Apollo 11 mission,
Image Courtesy – Wikimedia Commons

While both the Americans and Russians were using pencils in space at the time, the graphite dust from pencils was a potential electrical hazard. Also the impermanence of pencil writing was not ideal for critical record keeping on space missions. The Fisher Space Pen turned out to be a perfect solution to the problem and Paul Fisher spent his own money developing it, as much for the marketing potential as the actual technical use of it.

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Apollo 7, Lunar Module Pilot, R. Walter Cunningham with the Space Pen,
Image Courtesy – Wikimedia Commons

So contrary to the urban legends, the Americans didn’t spend a gazillion dollars developing the Space Pen. That’s just a load of baloney; Or maybe it’s corned beef. Popular accounts of the specifics of that infamous sandwich and of the space pen vary just as wildly to this day. 

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