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There's a well-known urban legend about how NASA spent millions of dollars to develop a pen that could write in space, whereas Soviet cosmonauts simply used pencils. Well, amusing as that anecdote might be, it just isn't true.
The truth, however, is still fascinating. It turns out that since the late 1960s, both American astronauts and Soviet/Russian cosmonauts have been purchasing space pens from the same supplier – the Fisher Pen Company. Without any funding from NASA, Paul C. Fisher invented the AG-7 "Anti-Gravity" Space Pen in 1967, which uses compressed nitrogen rather than gravity to make the ink flow. This remarkable pen could be used not only in space, but also upside-down, at extreme temperatures, and even underwater.
It was first purchased by NASA for the Apollo 7 mission in 1968, and successive models have been used by the space agency ever since. The Soviets, for the record, quickly caught on and ordered the very same pens the following year, ditching their grease pencils.
Houston, pencil or pen?
- In the late 1960s, the space pens cost $3.98 at full price (though both the Americans and the Soviets received a discount for buying in bulk). You can buy one of your own today for around $50.
- As simple as it would seem to just use a pencil instead, there are safety concerns. Graphite pencils can break, leaving tiny particles floating in the space capsule, where they could potentially damage vital equipment. And the wood of a traditional pencil poses a fire risk.
- These days, nearly all writing in space is typed on laptops – specifically, on customized heat-resistant Lenovo ThinkPads for astronauts aboard the International Space Station.