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How a Pen That Amused Us in '3 Idiots' Enabled Safer Writing in Space

the Space Pen uses a ballpoint made of tungsten carbide, which is fitted airtight so that no pressure is created in the ink. ( Credits: Reuters/ YouTube)

the Space Pen uses a ballpoint made of tungsten carbide, which is fitted airtight so that no pressure is created in the ink. ( Credits: Reuters/ YouTube)

When Paul C. Fisher pitched his new product to NASA, the authorities tried to write using the Fisher Space Pen at multiple angles, multiple temperatures and multiple atmospheric conditions.

In an iconic scene from Aamir Khan’s 3 Idiots, the director of an engineering college, played by Boman Irani, tells students that when he will meet someone as good as himself, he will award the person with a pen his teacher gave him. This pen was an astronauts’ pen that worked at any angle, under any temperature, in zero gravity. A curious student asks why astronauts did not use a pencil. Confused for a moment by the unexpected question, the teacher tells the student that he will get back to him.

There is a legend that US space agency NASA spent millions of dollars of unnecessary money to develop a pen that could write in space while Soviets chose to use pencil. However, the story is not true. In reality, Paul C. Fisher, founder of Fisher Pen Company from Illinois, United States, independently spent $1 million to develop the Fisher Space Pen, which is shown in the film 3 idiots.

But why doesn’t a normal ballpoint pen work in space? What does it take for a pen to work? Its body and ink, right? Apparently, no. One of the crucial elements of a normal ball-point or gel pen is gravity, which pushes the ink to spread on the paper. Besides, if pressure is created in its ink tank, the ink is prone to leakage.

To solve these problems, the Space Pen uses a ballpoint made of tungsten carbide, which is fitted airtight so that no pressure is created in the ink. The pressurized ink, which flows when put to use or otherwise remains more viscous, is forced out using compressed nitrogen. The ink is sealed airtight to avoid leakage.

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When Fisher pitched his new product to NASA, the space agency’s Manned Spacecraft Center — now known as New Johnson Space Center — in Houston performed extensive tests on the pen. They tried to write using the Fisher Space Pen at multiple angles, multiple temperatures and multiple atmospheric conditions.

After it passed the required tests, NASA approved the pen and bought 400 space pens at a rate of $6 a piece. Soon, the Russian space agency too bought the Fisher pens. Before this, the space agencies were using different pencils. NASA used a mechanical pencil and avoided the wooden pencils because they were a fire hazard in NASA’s oxygen-rich spaceships. Russian space programs used wax pencils, which were a safer alternative.

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first published:August 30, 2021, 14:55 IST