Pen and Pencil are indisputable examples of a communications technology. Depending on the use, we switch between them to put down ideas and store information. In outer space, astronauts rely on these commodity tools to log and record scientific experiments. Here, we look at the evolution of the writing stationery in space and how a felt-tip marker saved Apollo 11.
Since the start of the space program, NASA and the Soviet Union had both use the graphite wooden pencils. However, it wasn’t the best option for it pose as a fire hazard in the 100% oxygen environment. The electrically conductive graphite dust can also cause a short circuit in electrical devices.
NASA switched to mechanical pencil in the 1960s, in time for the start of the Gemini Program. The Soviet Union later follow suit, ditching the grease pencil that though eliminate the problems of graphite dust, its wrapper is still flamable.
A pen fit for Space was developed in 1965 by Paul C. Fisher. His goal was simply to make a pen that wouldn’t leak. A pressurized ball pen made with thixotropic ink that is gel-like at rest but turns into a liquid under pressure. Fisher’s breakthrough was perfectly timed with the space race and he offered the pens to NASA for consideration.
Common urban legends would say that NASA spends millions of dollars on the research and development of a pen that works in zero - gravity environment. Is it of course entirely false.
The pens were thoroughly tested because of the fire in Apollo 1, taking the lives of three astronauts. NASA not only had to make sure that it would not burn in a 100% oxygen atmosphere, but also its functionality in zero gravity while withstand the extreme temperatures of space. After two years of testing, Fisher pen was approved. In December 1967, Fisher sold 400 Fisher Space Pens to NASA with a 40 percent discount, costing $2.35 a pen. These pen began its journey to space since Apollo 7 and shortly on the Soviets mission as well. The pen was considered more dependable and permanent than pencils, making it suitable for logbooks and scientific notebooks.
A marker was accidentally introduced to NASA by an Astronaut who brought it to work. Made by Duro Pen co, the felt-tip marker functions in zero gravity because it had a wadding of cotton material, allowing the ink to be absorbed with capillary action, taking the ink away. For many astronauts, a marker means nothing more than a writing tool, but for the crew of Apollo 11, it literally meant one marker away from a tragedy.
After a day of exploration on the moon, astronauts Armstrong and Aldrin of Apollo 11 returned to the lunar module to find that a circuit breaker had somehow broken off when they were suiting up earlier. Without a backup planed for this situation, they had no way to power up the lunar module to leave the Moon and return to the orbiting command module. The broken circuit breaker was immediately reported to Houston Control but after 6 intensed hours the engineer still counld not come up with the solution.
With enough oxygen for only a few more hours, Aldrin came to the conclusion that if he could find something to fit in the hole left by the broken breaker it might stay on. Since the switch was electrical, anything metal would have shorted the entire ship. With his ingenious thinking, he took out a Duro felt tip marker from the pocket of his flight suit, using the plastic tip to push the circuit in. It works! Had it not been for that marker, both might still be on the moon.
The humbling wooded pencil and pen surely have come a long way in our history. And though most information are now keyed and stored on our phone or computer, these writing stationaries are still an irreplaceable communication tools even till today, here on earth as well as space.
Words by Buranee Soh