Why Can Astronauts Write in Space?


Many of us take for granted just how many typical daily tasks are nearly impossible when you’re traveling through space with an entirely different experience with gravity.  Things as simple as eating and using the bathroom become enormous challenges that require heavy investments into new technology to make these basic human tasks possible.

One area that is often overlooked is writing.  Writing serves a critical purpose in space as much as Earth, whether it be jotting down very important observations made during a mission, or simply writing down the name of something so as not to forget it at a later time.  As you can imagine, writing in space would pose a huge challenge, in more ways than the average person would realize.  But, writing in space is possible, and that’s because of brilliant minds and advanced technology of today.

Writing in Space: A Brief History

American astronauts have been writing in space since 1968, with Space Pens developed by Paul Fisher of the Fisher Pen Company.  Paul Fisher was a particularly innovative man who was in the process of developing pencils that could work vertically and horizontally, including upside-down, for writing outdoors without requiring a suitable surface.  This caught NASA’s attention, especially since NASA personnel on Earth were already using the Fisher Pen Company’s ink cartridge refills, which worked universally with other pens, and were the first of their kind.

It didn’t take long for NASA to reach out to Paul Fisher personally, asking him to apply his brilliant knack for innovation to the needs of American astronauts so that they could effectively write while dealing with the limitations of space travel.  While the use of pencils would seem like the practical option, NASA determined that this would actually be quite dangerous, as the graphite could break off in small pieces during writing and end up floating in the air and potentially getting into astronauts’ eyes, or into equipment.  Further, as graphite is flammable, especially in the unique purely-oxygen-based cabins in spacecraft, it could pose a serious hazard.

As pens rely on gravity to provide a flow of ink to the tip, some serious brainstorming had to be done to come up with a solution.  NASA had a few requirements for the pen.  Besides its need to function in spacecraft, it needed to work for half a kilometer to be efficient enough to meet astronauts’ demands. 

Little did NASA know that Paul Fisher was already working on an impressive form of pen technology prior to NASA’s phone call.  The pen he was developing utilized a sealed ink cartridge with a piston pushing down by compressed nitrogen to create the write amount of pressure to control the ink flow.  As the first prototype leaked ink out of the point, he developed what he referred to as “thixotropic,” combining resin with the ink to thicken it up and prevent it from leaking, resulting in a unique ink formula that was almost completely solid until exposed to friction so that it could write when pressed down.  When Fisher finally shared this technology with NASA in the form of samples, NASA was clearly impressed.  The pens were tested more heavily than any pen in history, and they exposed the pens to all kinds of conditions including extreme temperatures, different angles, and different atmospheres, and consistently found that the pens were able to write for three miles, vastly surpassing expectations put forth by the organization. 

The Early Uses of “Space Pens”

Now that NASA approved of these writing instruments, referred to as “Space Pens” by their inventor, they were finally ready to be used in space missions starting in 1969.  From then on, Space Pens were an essential component to all space missions by NASA.  The International Space System currently has a large number of them on site.  Now, the Space Foundation recognizes Space Pens as a groundbreaking technology and has honored them through the organization’s Hall of Fame.

Space Pens have not evolved much since they were first developed decades ago, as this technology has proven to be just as useful today as it was back then.  This means that the same writing instruments that were used back in 1969 are being used today and enabling astronauts to fulfill a task that was once believed to be impossible.

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