A long-standing urban myth claims that NASA invested millions into developing a pen that would work in space while Russian cosmonauts simply used pencils.
During the peak of the Space Race in the mid 1960s, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) did indeed desire to have a pen that would operate safely and efficiently in the conditions of space, as standard pens were not functional in zero gravity. American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts initially used pencils on the first space missions, yet pencils were found to be costly and somewhat hazardous.
According to a page found on the NASA website, the administration ordered 34 mechanical pencils from Tycam Engineering Manufacturing, Inc. in 1965 for use on space missions. The cost in 1965 dollars was a staggering $4,382.50 ($128.89 per pencil) due to a preset contract. Public accusations of impractical expenditures resulted in a cancellation of the order and a search for more economical equipment.
Pencils were also viewed as a potential risk for several reasons. Being made of wood, they were a possible fire hazard. In addition, pencil shavings, broken lead tips, and graphite dust were seen as possible sources of distraction or injury to the astronauts, and it was conceivable that they might adversely affect the sensitive electronics within the space capsules.
Enter Paul C. Fisher
Unrelated to the developments at NASA, ballpoint pen pioneer Paul Fisher of the Fisher Pen Company had been developing an “anti-gravity” pen for years. He finally patented the invention, known as the AG7, in 1965 (Patent #3,285,228). The AG7 was envisioned and developed by Paul Fisher and the Fisher Pen Company without prompting or funding from NASA, and it is estimated that Fisher spent over a million dollars of his own money perfecting the pen’s design.
During World War II, Fisher allegedly worked with ball bearings at a factory which manufactured airplane propellers, an experience that Smithsonian Magazine claims was eventually responsible for his proficiency in ballpoint pen development. In the early 1950s, Paul Fisher invented the “Universal Refill” for ink pens. From there, Fisher continued to improve the design of ballpoint pens and the “Universal Refill” until he created a pen which worked efficiently in weightless conditions.
Paul Fisher pitched the AG7 “Anti-Gravity” Space Pen to NASA in 1965. NASA was initially skeptical of Fisher’s pen due to the public protest regarding their earlier contract for overpriced mechanical pencils, yet the administration accepted Fisher’s offer in 1967 after two years of meticulous testing. Scientific American states that NASA bought 400 AG-7 pens in 1968 at a 40% bulk discount which brought the cost of each pen to $2.39.
Fisher’s pen was first carried into space during the Apollo 7 mission in October of 1968. In February of 1969, the Soviet Union bought 100 of the pens and 1000 refillable ink cartridges from Fisher for its space program. Since then, Fisher’s pens continue to be used in space missions by both the Americans and Russians.
Paul C. Fisher died in 2006 at the age of 93.
The AG7 “Anti-Gravity” Space Pen
The ingenious design of the AG7 is dependent on a hermetically sealed cartridge which is pressurized by nitrogen gas (35 pounds per square inch). A tungsten carbide ballpoint tip maintains the pressure and the specialized thixotropic ink which remains a solid gel until it is converted to a fluid when force is applied to the ballpoint. This system prevents the ink from leaking and allows the pen to operate effectively in a variety of unusual conditions (most notably the absence of gravity).
Below are a list of interesting claims about the AG-7:
- Performs effectively in zero gravity
- Does not leak
- Capable of writing upside down, underwater, and/or on wet paper
- Operates in a wide temperature range (-50 degrees Fahrenheit to +400 degrees Fahrenheit)
- Contains enough ink to write for 30.7 miles
Another Myth Regarding the Fisher Space Pen
A somewhat lesser known urban legend in relation to the Fisher Space Pen is that the astronauts on the Apollo 11 space mission repaired the lander’s broken ascent engine arming circuit breaker using an AG-7.
According to a 2011 Smithsonian article entitled “Ten Enduring Myths About the U.S. Space Program“, Buzz Aldrin actually repaired the circuit using a felt-tip marker.
Pop Culture References to the Fisher Space Pen
Several references to the Fisher Space Pen and its mythology have appeared in pop culture over the years. Following is a brief list of these references.
In the 1995 movie Apollo 13 starring Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, and Gary Sinise, there is a scene where Hanks (playing astronaut Jim Lovell) preserves the myth and mentions that the United States spent a fortune attempting to develop a pen that worked in zero gravity while the Russians just used a pencil.
A 1998 episode of Seinfeld references the Fisher Space Pen.
The Fisher Space Pen mythology is again referenced in a 2002 episode of The West Wing.
NASA did not spend millions of dollar developing a pen that would work in zero gravity while Soviet cosmonauts opted for using pencils. Pencils were used in early missions into space by both the Americans and the Russians, but other solutions were sought when pencils were discovered to be a potential danger. Exclusive of NASA’s influence and financing, Paul C. Fisher and the Fisher Pen Company invented and designed the AG-7 “Anti-Gravity” Space Pen which was patented in 1965. It is estimated that Fisher spent roughly $1 million dollars of his own money designing the AG7 over a period of several years. The Fisher Space Pen was eventually pitched and sold in bulk to NASA in 1968 and then to the Soviets in 1969. It is still manufactured and carried into space today by American and Russian space agencies.
Updated April 28, 2015
Originally published January 2015