space penAnyone remember the Space Pen? The astronauts first used them in the Apollo missions (in fact, the pens are stilled used today) and they quickly became a the “it” item for the geek set back on earth.

The pens have also been used as Exhibit A in the case against government waste. The story goes that NASA spent millions developing a pen that could write in low gravity, while the Russians solved the problem by issuing their cosmonauts pencils. But that story is not quite true.

NASA did in fact equip its astronauts with pencils in some of its first missions. But pencils were dangerous items in those early spacecrafts. Wood and graphite are flammable materials and not something you want in a 100 percent oxygen environment like the pre-Apollo space capsules. Furthermore if the tip breaks, you’ve got a tiny missile floating around the cabin that could wreck havoc.

NASA’s solution was to take a standard mechanical pencil and enclose it in a specially designed housing the astronauts could operate while wearing thick space gloves. The agency order 34 of these new pencils at a cost of $128.89 apiece, which in 1965 sent Congress and the public into a tizzy about rocket scientists spending money as if it grew on trees.

Enter Paul C. Fisher, owner of the Fisher Pen Co. Fisher had spent about $1 million of his own money developing the Fisher AG-7 pen, for which he received a patent in 1965. The pen could write in low gravity and air environments and also worked well in extreme low and high temperatures.

The publicity generated by the $128 mechanical pencil presented Fisher with an opportunity to pitch his pens to NASA brass. In 1968, the space agency bought 400 pens for about $6 each. A year later, the Russians bought 100 pens for their space program. Today you can buy one online from Fisher’s company for $22.

Did you know?

  • The AG-7 pen made its debut in space on the Apollo 7 mission.
  • In 1960, Paul Fisher was the only candidate to run against John F. Kennedy in the New Hampshire presidential primary.
  • The secret to the Space Pen is its ink cartridge which is pressurized with nitrogen. When you push down on the pen’s ball point, ink is forced out of the cartridge. The concept is similar to pressing the button on an aerosol can.