The Astronomical Promises Of The Fisher Space Pen

We’ve all heard of the Fisher Space Pen. Heck, there’s even an episode of Seinfeld that focuses on this fountain of ink, which is supposed to be ready for action no matter what you throw at it. The legend of the Fisher Space Pen says that it can and will write from any angle, in extreme temperatures, underwater, and most importantly, in zero gravity. While this technology is a definite prerequisite for astronauts in space, it has a long list of practical Earthbound applications as well (though it would be nice if it also wrote on any substrate).

You’ve probably heard the main myth of the Fisher Space Pen, which is that NASA spent millions to develop it, followed quickly by the accompanying joke that the Russian cosmonauts simply used pencils. The truth is, NASA had already tried pencils and decided that graphite particles were too much of an issue because they would potentially clog the instruments, like bags of ruffled potato chips and unsecured ant farms.

A Space-Worthy Instrument Indeed

Usually, it’s government agencies that advance technology, and then it trickles down to the consumer market at some point. But NASA didn’t develop the Space Pen. No government agency did. Paul Fisher of the Fisher Pen Company privately spent most of the 1960s working on a pressurized pen that didn’t require gravity in the hopes of getting NASA’s attention and business. It worked, and NASA motivated him to keep going until he was successful.

An original Fisher Space Pen AG-7 atop the Apollo 11 flight plan.
The pen that went to the moon. Image via Sebastien Billard

Then they tested the hell out of it in all possible positions, exposed it to extreme temperatures between -50 °F and 400 °F (-45 °C to 204 °C), and wrote legible laundry lists in atmospheres ranging from pure oxygen to a total vacuum. So, how does this marvel of engineering work?

The Fisher Space Pen’s ink cartridge is pressurized to 45 PSI with nitrogen, which keeps oxygen out in the same manner as potato chip bags. Inside is a particularly viscous, gel-like ink that turns to liquid when it meets up with friction from the precision-fit tungsten carbide ballpoint.

Between the viscosity and the precision fit of the ballpoint, the pen shouldn’t ever leak, but as you’ll see in the video below, (spoiler alert!) snapping an original Space Pen cartridge results in a quick flood of thick ooze as the ink is forced out by the nitrogen.

By 1966, the Pen was ready and took its first trip to space on the Apollo 7 mission. These days there are 80 different models of Space Pen, but only two of them are NASA-approved: the original AG-7 (anti-gravity) which is used in flight, and the Shuttle model, dozens of which are floating around the ISS for general use.

Apollo’s Other Pen

US Astronaut Michael Collins' Duro-brand felt-tip marker from the Apollo 11 mission
The pen that saved the Apollo 11 mission. Well, close enough. Image via National Air & Space Museum

Here’s another myth you might have heard: this pen saved the Apollo 11 mission. But no, that was actually a felt-tip pen made by Duro. On the way back into Eagle after the EVA, Buzz Aldrin’s giant backpack broke a circuit breaker off the panel. It happened to be an important one that activated the ascent engine that was supposed to get them off the Moon.

Armstrong and Aldrin had jettisoned many of their tools already, but they still had their pens. After a few hours of sleeping on the problem, Aldrin though to shove his pen into the panel while Tranquility Base nervously clicked their BiCs back in Houston. It worked (obviously), and they were able to lift off and rendezvous with Collins in the capsule.

Fun fact: the Duro that’s on display at National Air & Space Museum is actually Michael Collins‘ pen — Buzz Aldrin keeps his at home next to the broken circuit breaker.

Earthbound Misfit?

Image via Pentulant

The Fisher Space Pen may be perfect for all extreme applications and environments, from underwater to the vacuum of space, but apparently they can be frustrating here on Earth. But you can’t really expect to have a fine writing experience with something that’s meant to write for extreme situations, can you?

Although I’ve always sort of wanted a Space Pen for obvious nerd-tastic reasons, I loathe using ballpoints and therefore can’t justify the cost to myself. Our own [Tom Nardi] has one and says they’re crap. They may write in any condition, but they are ‘rough to use’ and ‘the ink (didn’t) flow well’. Then again, his might be a dud, as it was procured from Staples in the early 2000s when there were counterfeit Pens about. Lots of people say that they have to use more pressure than normal because of the gooey ink.

We sort of wonder why NASA didn’t go with grease pencils. Possibly the particles thing again? Mechanical grease pencils were already a thing by then, so it couldn’t have been the ‘wee bits of paper everywhere’ excuse. Or maybe it’s just that grease pencils don’t write finely enough, or that their marks can easily be smudged.

NASA still uses Fisher Space Pens today, and so does Space X. As for the Russians, they started buying Fisher Space Pens not long after NASA did, way back in 1967.

57 thoughts on “The Astronomical Promises Of The Fisher Space Pen

  1. Your colleague’s pen probably isn’t a dud. I’ve had several Fisher space pens over the years and they all suck for writing any longer than a post-it note. I can confirm they write reliably at any angle, including upside down. But the experience is very similar to the cheapest BIC you’d buy by the hundred for cheap for the office supply cabinet. This is a true jack of all trades, master of none. Unless you’re planning on writing in zero gravity on a regular basis, I think it’s worth finding a nicer pen you enjoy using. Even if it can’t write upside down.

    1. I had actually considered buying a second one after Kristina and I spoke about it, just to see if my memory might be failing me, but your description matches my experience exactly. It felt like any other cheap pen I’d ever used before, which was a supreme disappointment considering the price.

      At least now it looks like there are far cheaper variants on the market.

    2. I’m quite happy with Fisher pens. I even bought a cartridge for my Parker Jotter, because it’s more comfortable to hold. the space pen is nice because it fits in my pocket and a lot of knife and flashlight holders include a holder for a short pen.
      Why do I like Fisher’s cartridges? I’m a lefty and the ink dries fairly fast. I get less of it on my hand. As a left you have two choices of techniques, one where you can’t see what you are writing, or one where you smudge everything. You can usually tell which people use because their script will curve off course.
      Ultimately if you want writing to be cheap, reliable and water resistant? use a pencil. I’ve had notes severely water damaged but easily read because I wrote them with a cheap 0.7mm mechanical pencil. Even “water proof” ink will transfer between pages if the paper is soaked. Making the original writing difficult to read underneath the overlay image.

  2. i had a fisher space pen, it looked like the one that went to the moon. i loved the ink…writing felt like a parker pen, smooth thick feeling, not like roller ball or gel pens at all. just my preference. it wrote on everything i ever asked it to and never jammed, and it was good for doing crosswords in a recliner (writing against gravity). i loved that it didn’t jam when i wrote on my hand, which is another quality shared by parker pens but not by cheap bic ball points.

    but they invented this ridiculous metal cylinder to put the ink cartridge in (the pen body), with the ball bearing release on the side. maybe it’s just my hands, but i found that pretty frustrating from the get-go, and by the time the ink was out, i had physically broken it so that it wouldn’t click in-and-out anymore. i have never broken a parker jotter pen and typically don’t even break the cheap clicky pens i have had. i hate when people get fancy about pen bodies.

    i do love the ink, but i never bothered to figure out if i could use the space pen ink cartridge in a regular pen so that turned me off of it.

    1. interesting! can confirm that regular bics don’t write (for very long) in negative gravity…get about halfway through the crossword before it stops. wonder if that’s true in microgravity

  3. The problem with graphite is not that it’s messy (well, it is) or that it will “gum things up” (graphite is used as a lubricant), but that it’s conductive. It would be awfully unfortunate if one of the spacecraft switches got shorted out by graphite residue.

    1. If that’s the case, then the equipment must be of lousy quality.
      Humidity is something to be more worried of, I think.
      And the insanely high levels of oxygen used in modern space vehicles. The Soviets/Russians, if memory serves, used a normal oxygen/nitrogen mixture that was much closer to earth’s atmosphere.

          1. Weight was a premium, and having a two gas system (which they eventually went to in the redesigned Apollo Block 2 Spacecraft) adds weight and complexity. Ultimately the safety factor won over the weight savings of the one gas system.

      1. Inside a spacecraft you have a completely controlled environment. Therefore I would also expect, that humidity is controlled as necessary. There is also the question, if the danger by graphite is more a theoretical one or a has a high probability.

  4. I had one of the bullet-shaped Space Pens as a high schooler. It was pretty cool until I dropped it on the ball one day and must have dented the seat somehow, because it constantly oozed ink after that. I’d have to wipe its nose before and during use. This was way before the Internet was a thing and I lived in the boondocks so getting a new cartridge wasn’t an option. As Gene Kranz didn’t say, “failure was an option”.

  5. I got one about a decade ago, it felt like a ballpoint. I hated it. I have the cartridge around somewhere, the casing it came with broke.

    I gave up ballpoints decades ago. Not that I ever did much writing by hand after getting a typewriter about 1976. I got tired of having to get them started. So fine tipped markers for me. I even bought one of those metal cased Sharpie pens, but the cartridges seem hard to get.

    The Space Pen cartridges fit other casings, but I think they need an adapter.

  6. By far the best thing about the space pen cartridges is that they *will* not explode due to heat, which means they are completely safe to just leave in your pocket so you always have a pen on hand.

    But the bullet pen is not Fisher’s best pen body. The X750 BK is far better if you’re looking for a matte finish pen. It has a permanent clip with a rubberized grip and slightly nicer in the hand since it’s not as short. Not nearly as iconic though.

  7. If only 2 of the “space pens” are approved by the various space agencies/companies, doesn’t that mean that the other 78 models AREN’T space pens? So a space pen company makes a bunch of pens, but only 2 space pens, but are some how still a space pen company? Sounds like they’re just a pen company that also happens to make a couple of space pens. Lame.

    I recommend they take all that R&D money they spent on making non-space pens and improve the only true space pens they have. They’d probably sell more of them. Not good for the company’s reputation when the thing you are supposed to be good at doing sucks and then you mostly don’t do that at all anyway.

    1. The cartridge is what makes it a “space pen”. So having made a mark, all the different pens are style.

      I doubt NASA would want the one I got, looks like an average pen, the plastic barrel broke. And would you want the bullet pen if you were wearing spacesuit gloves?

      It’s like school supplies. Teachers are often listing specific items, not “pencil”.

  8. I bought a Fisher Millineum pen in like ’96, cause it had 33 miles of ink in it (vs a normal pens ~1/8 mile) and it had a lifetime warranty. If it fails for any reason or runs out ink, ship it to them, they mail a new one back. Yes, it isn’t the ‘best writing instrument ever’, but I am on the third replacement now, with no need to buy a different pen ever again. Plus, it pairs well with Rite in the Rain notepads.

  9. This article was extremely timely for me as I just bought a pressurized pen last week at Staples.
    I like to do crossword puzzles while lying down in bed and regular pens were just not up to doing the job.

    I wound up buying a Zebra X701 Extreme ballpoint pen with a 0.7mm fine point. This pen is drop test approved in conjunction with military standards (MIL-STD-810G-516.6) and is usable in temperatures as low as -30 degrees Fahrenheit.

    The metal barrel of the pen is non-reflective and comes with a sturdy lanyard loop (which hopefully means I won’t drop it very often).

    And finally, the pen comes with 2 bonus refills.

    So far, I am very happy with how the pen is performing. I was pleasantly surprised at how little pressure my hand needs to apply in order for the ink to flow when I am writing upside down.

    Color me satisfied !

  10. At one point, I had a pair of writing instruments, each of which had three modes — space pen, mechanical pencil, and stylus. (This was, I believe, the late ’90s or early ’00s; I was a heavy user of PalmOS devices, and the neon orange stylus nib was great for Graffiti input.) I liked the way those pens wrote quite a lot, but my tendency to lose small unsecured objects means I dropped each along the way, probably in some odd corner of the campus I worked in.

  11. I like the space pen refills paired with a Skilcraft B3 Aviator multi-pen, it takes the D1 or universal refills though the opening in the tip requires a bit of reaming to fit the tips while also being small enough to use the pencil. Together they are a very slim ‘normal’ pen size but I have red, black, and pencil; I went with space refills after accidentally washing a few times and leaking in my flightsuit. I bought a few years ago and use them for everything, I even got them for my older kids.
    I think Skilcraft is also a spun off government support project for disabled folks as that contractor makes all kinds of stuff, the pens are great though excepting the leak potential of the refills.

  12. My Space Pen has been far better than most ballpoints and the experience is nothing like a cheap BiC. If you write too slowly or make lots of tight turns, though, you get some blobs. I mostly hate ballpoints and go out of my way to get one of only a few models of “rolling ball” pens that write smoothly yet are very precise. The only other ballpoint I recall that wrote upside-down was PaperMate PowerPoint. Pushing on it pumped the ink. It was a horrible pen to write with otherwise.

  13. They make a “stowaway” version that is basically a tube just a tiny bit bigger than the refill itself. It really is tiny but when you take the cap off and post it on the back it’s pretty comfy to write with actually.

    Also. The medium size refills Ive always found to be globby and kinda bogus. Never seen the fine ones sold in store but you can order them and they are a lot better.

    I made a little duct tape pocket inside the back cover of a small RiteInTheRain notebook and it’s duet easy to put in a pocket along side a cell phone for trip to grocery store or whatever.

  14. I feel like the fine refills are much better than the standard medium included with space pens. Still not great but I like it for the reliability. I don’t write a lot, but I always know this pen will work when I do.

  15. Have owned many Fishers for decades and have always loved them. While some have been Fisher pens, more have been handmade pens with Fisher cartridges. I like them because they just plain work, period. Schmidt also makes a great pressurized cartridge.

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