Tuesday, December 13, 2011

>>>Spaaaaace Pen!>>>

Oh, you've heard the yarn, don't say you haven't -- "NASA spent millions to develop a space pen; the Russians just use pencils."

It's a cute story and when you look at the two space programs, it seems to fit -- aside from Buran, the Russians have really only had the one man-rated booster design, significantly improved over the years, step by step while NASA's had half a dozen, fiddled with, flown and thrown away; NASA's ISS toolkit has a nice little machinist's hammer neatly tucked away but the Russians stuck an eight-pound sledge (with a handle ending in a pick!) in theirs.*

But the truth is better, stranger and makes more sense: to begin with, everyone took pencils into space. NASA even tried mechanical pencils. The leads broke off and got into things. Shavings from sharpening a wooden pencil threatened to end up where they'd do the most harm. Cosmonauts messed with grease pencils...and a guy named Paul C. Fisher decided there had to be a better way. He was already in the pen business, having invented the universal ballpoint refill, perhaps a little shadowed by big names like Scheaffer and Parker, so he dug in and worked at it until he had an all-metal, pressurized-ink pen; even the thixotropic ink has a flash point around 200° C, an important safety feature, especially in the pure-oxygen atmospheres used in U.S. spacecraft until the Apollo One tragedy.

Mr. Fisher never received a dime of government money to develop his pen -- and once it was on the market, even the Russian space program started using them!

The moral of the story? "Don't believe everything you hear," and, "Simple isn't always the best way to go." I shudder to think what a pure-oxy pencil fire might look like but it'd give you a whole new appreciation for the common #2.

And you're not going to forget Paul C. Fisher anytime soon, either.
* If you can only have two hammers, that's not a bad set of choices -- so it's a good thing both space programs are involved.


Anonymous said...

See the true genius of an entrepreneur, capitalism at work :-)

My fisher space pen goes everywhere with me, endlessly useful from writing shopping lists (I have to write them or I forget what I'm there for and end up going out for milk and buying a usb rocket launcher - hey the neighbours cat ate my tuna sandwich, now all I need is a r/c m270 to get it out of the garden) or lying under the landy in a puddle to write the chassis serial number (Alzheimers is really.. ? er, where was I?)

Anyway, forget the possibility of pencil fires in pure O2. What about if you're feeling a bit peckish, go for a snack, and:


Ah, bacon, is there anything it can't do?

(don't you just love 'engineering grade bacon')

Anonymous said...

I have the trekker model. Son gave it to me several years ago for Christmas and I have carried it every since. Love it. Writes on almost everything and in all positions.

Thanks for the O2 comment. Now I want to try it.

Hold my beer and watch this!


Sigman said...

Actually, Apollo 1 was the only capsule to use a pure oxygen environment. Mercury, Gemini and all the later Apollo capsules use Regular air. They had O2 tanks to replenish oxygen in the air after it had been through the CO2 scrubbers.

Fuzzy Curmudgeon said...

Some of us always knew that story smelt ever so slightly of cheese :) I think I read about the Fisher Space Pen in Popular Mechanics (or maybe Boy's Life) back in the '60s. And owned a few, too.

Roberta X said...

Sigman, it was the only Apollo capsule, but, "The high-pressure oxygen atmosphere was consistent with that used in the Mercury and Gemini programs. The pressure before launch was deliberately greater than ambient in order to drive out the nitrogen-containing air and replace it with pure oxygen...."

"When designing the Mercury spacecraft, NASA had considered using a nitrogen/oxygen mixture to reduce the fire risk near launch, but rejected it based on two considerations. First, nitrogen used with the in-flight pressure reduction carried the clear risk of decompression sickness (known as "the bends"). But the decision to eliminate the use of any gas but oxygen was crystalized when a serious accident occurred on April 21, 1960, in which McDonnell Aircraft test pilot G.B. North passed out and was seriously injured when testing a Mercury cabin / spacesuit atmosphere system in a vacuum chamber. The problem was found to be nitrogen-rich (oxygen-poor) air leaking from the cabin into his spacesuit feed." Per Wikipedia, with cites.

Roberta X said...

(The Russians had their pure-oxygen training fatality early and appear to have gone with oxygen-nitrogen from the start. Possibly even sea-level pressure, which makes Gagarin's high-altitde bailout in a pressure sui all the more gutsy.)

Chris said...

I read somewhere that the Russians had an accident in their pure-O2 training facility, with fatal results.

The accident was supposedly caused by a cosmonaut using a hot-plate.

Dave H said...

I enjoyed growing up during the space race. Tang, space food sticks, astronaut ice cream, space blankets, space pens, BBF Restaurants ("at the sign with the whirling satellite!").

Now what do we have? iStuff.

Bubblehead Les. said...

I believe that there was a Problem with the Pure Oxygen set up during Project Man High, the Air Force Program using High Altitude Balloons. Bad Fire occurred, and the Air Force said enough. But NASA decided to go ahead anyway, even though they knew about the incident that occurred several years earlier.

J.R.Shirley said...

Pencil fire? What the?

Sadly, in my experience, space pens were made to be lost.

Roberta X said...

Closest thing I can find to a pwncil fire in pure oxygen.

Roberta X said...

...In an earthlike atmosphere, maybe a plain ballpoint will do. Hunh.

Moriarty said...

Actually, Apollo 1 was the only capsule to use a pure oxygen environment. Mercury, Gemini and all the later Apollo capsules use Regular air.

Incorrect. Both Mercury and Gemini used pure oxygen at 5 psi. The "Apollo 1" fire occurred when the cabin was pressurized to nearly 17 psi during the infamous "plugs out" testing.

(This is over five times the partial pressure of oxygen in the atmosphere. Things normally not considered flammable burn rather... vigorously under those conditions.)

In the Block II redesign, a mixed-gas system was used for the launch phase, after which the cabin atmosphere was gradually vented and replaced with 100% oxygen at 5 psi until landing.

(Some may recall that the Apollo-Soyuz mission required the use of an airlock between the two spacecraft, as the Soviets stuck to a heavy, inefficient mixed gas affair. This was apparently fine for Earth orbit missions, but not given the mass restrictions NASA found necessary for a lunar landing.)

The Fisher Space Pen is the best goddam ballpoint pen in the world.

I have one in my pocket right now.

Anonymous said...

Too bad the Fisher pen doesn't write as nice as I'd like. Got one in a box somewhere.

Pilot Better Ballpoint FTW.


Tim D said...

Too bad they didn't have a <a href="http://www.grand-illusions.com/acatalog/Metal_Pen.html>metal pen</a>.

Tim D

David said...

As a 30-year space pen user who has never been to space, I'm happy to sing the praises of this wonderful pen. It has nothing to do with writing in zero-G or underwater, and everything to do with the compact design and the fact that they won't leak in your pocket or the laundry. Talked about this pen in my own blog recently (http://blog.bakerdavid.com/2011/12/tools-of-the-trade/)