How do astronauts write in space?

Do pens work in space? And did NASA really spend millions on a space pen when a pencil would have done?

Eileen Collins - the first woman to pilot the Space Shuttle, pictured onboard Discovery during the STS-63 mission, 3 February 1995. Credit: NASA
Published: July 8, 2022 at 10:38 am
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There's an old story that during the Cold War Space Race between the USA and the Soviet Union, NASA spent millions of dollars producing a pen that would work in zero gravity so astronauts would have a means of keeping notes and writing on paper during their missions.

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The punchline is that the Soviet astronauts got around the problem by using a pencil instead.

Is there any truth to this story, and would a regular fountain pen work in the zero gravity of space anyway?

More about human spaceflight:

NASA astronaut Walter Cunningham using a Fisher Space Pen during Apollo 7. Credit: NASA
NASA astronaut Walter Cunningham using a Fisher Space Pen during Apollo 7. Credit: NASA

The answer is that a normal fountain pen wouldn’t work without gravity to pull ink from the cartridge into the nib, so pens with pressurised ink canisters are needed in the weightlessness of space.

The old story relating the expensive NASA development of a space pen, versus Russian cosmonauts using a simple pencil, is amusing but untrue.

According to NASA, pencils weren't an option for astronauts, given the potential issues caused by broken leads or pencil sharpenings floating around a spacecraft orbiting the Moon.

There is indeed a space pen that is still used today by both American and Russian astronauts and cosmonauts, but it is the Fisher Space Pen and was developed by the Fisher Pen Company, which is a private company that continues to develop zero gravity pens.

The pens were first used during Apollo 7 and are still present on the International Space Station today.

So claims by concerned US taxpayers that their hard-earned dollars were wasted by frivolous NASA spending on a pointless project are, in this case, unfounded.

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This article originally appeared in the February 2010 issue of BBC Sky at Night Magazine.

Authors

Marcus Chown is an award-winning writer and broadcaster and a former radio astronomer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. He is the author of Breakthrough: Spectacular stories of scientific discovery from the Higgs particle to black holes (Faber & Faber, 2021).

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