The gravity-bending story of Nasa’s ingenious space pen
Growing up as a kid in the US in the 1960s, I was delighted to drink Tang, because by virtue of John Glenn’s gulping of the fruit-flavoured drink on Nasa’s Gemini missions, it became known as the “drink of the astronauts”. Drinking Tang made me feel connected to the broader cosmos. It wasn’t until many years later I got a Fisher Space Pen, which was a more tangible connection to worlds beyond — the Space Pen could (and still does) write in zero gravity.
I haven’t made a zero-gravity flight yet, but I suspect some variant of the pen will be around when I do. In 2018, the Fisher Pen Company celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Space Pen’s inaugural flight, commemorating the 1968 Apollo 7 mission, which was critical to the preparation for the next year’s Moon landing. There have been Space Pens on every manned mission — including Space Shuttle and Mir Space Station flights — since Apollo 7, which speaks to the enduring fitness of the writing instrument, and its evolution over time. Pilot and systems engineer R. Walter Cunningham using a Space Pen on the Apollo 7 flight Nasa That evolution has included many new models and shapes — military, outdoor enthusiast, police, commemorative — of the devices, but the technical articulation of its anti-gravity genius has remained remarkably consistent. Company founder Paul Fisher patented a sealed, pressurised ink cartridge for the original anti-gravity pen in 1966, and that fundamental technology abides. The pen’s “thixotropic” ink is key: “It’s close to a solid before being stirred, and as it is stirred by the ball going through the point, it becomes very thin, which allows it to flow in the gravity-free vacuum of space,” says Matt Fisher, VP of Sales and Marketing at Fisher, and grandson of the pen’s inventor, Paul Fisher.The pen’s use in spaceflight was Paul Fisher’s primary motivation for its development. “He was also somewhat of a perfectionist, so developing a more superior writing instrument was always his mission,” says Matt Fisher. Space isn’t the only demanding environment the pen has conquered —besides being able to write upside down, in water and over almost any surface, that ink will flow at temperatures between -30F to 250+F (-34C to 121C). Your penmanship may vary. 50th anniversary Fisher Space Pen Truh’st Nasa’s isn’t the only space programme to rely on the pens: they have been used by astronauts on Chinese and Russian flights too (although Russians do prefer to stick with the humble pencil). “They demand the best of the best products. That’s why they come to us,” says Mark Fisher. One of the astronauts on the Space Pen’s inaugural flight, Lunar Module pilot Walt Cunningham, recently said that 50 years ago, he “flew with the first flown Space Pen on Apollo 7. I relied on it then, and it’s still the only pen I rely on here on Earth.”Just to show that it’s a pen that really gets around, it’s on permanent exhibition in The New York Museum of Modern Art as an example of industrial design. But true fame? Yes — it was even featured on a Seinfeld episode.Mark Fisher says the company is most proud of the pen’s mark in history, and that it’s still used on all manned space flights. They are also proud that three generations of Fishers — Mark’s father, Cary Fisher, is the company's president — have graced the halls of its Nevada manufacturing center.And the future seems to be bright for the geeky space pen: the firm has just announced its newest iteration, the Tahitian Blue Bullet Space Pen. I imagine that Tahitian blue might be the one of the soothing blue shades seen by astronauts as they’ve moved through the vastness of space, looking at the blue planet below. My first Space Pen, sadly lost to time (and space) years ago, was a Chrome Bullet, but I was given a gift of a new Bullet with my name engraved on it, and it has travelled with me on earthbound projects for some time now. Tom Bentley's Space Pen Tom Bentley It’s comforting to think of the delight a pen can bring in today’s text-crazed world. Perhaps Elon Musk and Richard Branson will be handing out Space Pens on the inaugural civilian flights of SpaceX and Virgin Galactic. You want solid veterans at your side when you’re conquering gravity, and a Space Pen won’t let you down.More great stories from WIRED– Why your standing desk isn't solving your sitting problem– Our guide to the best WhatsApp alternatives– What is the point of folding phones?– The complicated truth about China's social credit system– Your old router is a goldmine for hackersGet the best of WIRED in your inbox every Saturday with the WIRED Weekender newsletter