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Space Science

Writing in Space with a Cheap Ballpoint Pen 298

Roland Piquepaille writes "Some days bring big surprises. Like many people, I always believed that it was impossible to write in space with ordinary pens because ink would not flow. So imagine my astonishment when I read Pedro Duque's diary from space this morning. Pedro Duque is an astronaut since 1992. Now, he's on board of the International Space Station (ISS) since October 18, 2003. And he's writing -- from space -- with a cheap ballpoint pen, like Russians apparently always did: 'So I also took one of our ballpoint pens, courtesy of the European Space Agency (just in case Russian ballpoint pens are special), and here I am, it doesn't stop working and it doesn't "spit" or anything.' Isn't it amazing? This summary contains more details and a photograph of Pedro Duque on board ISS." Note that NASA didn't go crazy developing a pen for space. Surface tension is the important factor for all pens, not gravity.
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Writing in Space with a Cheap Ballpoint Pen

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  • The ink cartridges in some pens is pressurized.
    • Sometimes it's just something called "capillar force" (a side effect of the surface tension of the liquids, which causes liquids to get sucked into fine tubes).

    • The reason for using pressure in pens, it seems, is that surface tension alone may not be enough to pull a long column of ink through a narrow tube. If there is a little bubble in the column of ink, the surface tension is broken, and there is no way to pull ink past the bubble.

      The problem of a bubble in the column of ink happens on land, too, not just in space. People deal with it by just throwing the pen away. Since cheap pens cost less than 15 cents, someone may develop the habit of throwing away pens without noticing what he is doing. If a bubble develops, it is usually after the pen has had considerable use, so there is little complaint.

      In situations of varying temperature and outside air pressure, unpressurized pens may develop a bubble more easily. Pressurized ink cartridges are a little more reliable, and cost the manufacturer only a little more.
      • by Anonymous Coward
        I dont know about the US, but in India where we dont throw away pens that often (My dad believes that you should use a good "Hero" ink pen for life, and in general writing instruments are treated with some reverence), we just open up the pen, pull out the refill and blow into it. If even that doesnt work, remove the ball and the metal part holding it, blow air at back till ink comes out the other end and put the tip back on. Works everytime (remember to wipe ink off the hands and table).
        • by bigman2003 ( 671309 ) on Friday October 24, 2003 @11:25AM (#7300626) Homepage
          In the U.S., ballpoint pens cost about 7 cents each.

          Typically, I buy a bag or two of them every year or so when they have a big bin at Staples, and throw them into the desk drawer. I usually don't have too much trouble with them, but this discussion has spurred me on to figure out how much time I should spend on trying to get one of these to work.

          I figure that it actually takes about 4 seconds of billed time to buy a new pen.

          This may be a horrible 'throwaway society' viewpoint, but I don't usually spend too much time dicking with my pen before I pull another one out of the drawer. And of course, I throw the first one away, so I don't run into the same problem with it again.

          Usually though, the issue is that I lose all my pens- not that they don't work. Eventually I end up searching through the glovebox in my car, where there is always a vast collection of pens that I have acquired from different places. Obviously there is some sort of subversive pen-exchange system out there, transferring pens around the country.

          I used to own a business where I thought it would be a good idea to give out pens to my customers. Not like a fine gift or anything, but just have stacks of them so people could take them when they wanted to. So I ordered like 5,000 of them, and started handing them out right away.

          Within the first month I got 3 or 4 calls from people telling me that my pens sucked. I figured that if they bothered to call, then they must have really sucked bad. I started testing them, and yes, they really did suck. So I ended up throwing out about 4,750 pens.

          Maybe I should have sent them to India...I can just imagine all of those potential customers blowing on the pens with my company name and logo on them. That would have been fantastic exposure, especially now that a lot of Indians are moving into the area.

          "So sir, how is it that you happened to come into (my former company name)"

          "I used to blow on your pens as a child, and I always dreamed of coming here one day...and telling you that your pens sucked."
        • Having travelled to India about 20 years ago, that kind of thing remains a strong memory. Coming from the US where we throw away all kinds of things without a second thought, I noticed that a scrap of paper with some empty space on it wasn't thrown away, but reused. And when someone lit a match for their own cigarette, cigarettes appeared from everywhere and that one match would result in maybe 20 lit cigarettes.

    • Right, but the moral of the story is that they don't need to be pressurized - the movement of the ink through the ball should provide a vaccum sufficient enough to draw the ink through the pen in zero gravity. Kinda like how you can hold fluid in a straw with a finger on top.
  • by Phoenix-kun ( 458418 ) * on Friday October 24, 2003 @08:34AM (#7299115) Homepage
    What's next? That astronauts didn't actually drink Tang in space? All those glasses of orange drink just so I could be like them gone to waste?
  • by lethalwp ( 583503 ) on Friday October 24, 2003 @08:35AM (#7299119)

    if gravity doesn't matter, explain me why you can't use a sheet of paper and a ballpoint pen on a wall for more than 5 minutes ?
    • by BogWart ( 654802 ) on Friday October 24, 2003 @08:38AM (#7299147)
      I think lack of gravity matters. In your upside down pen, gravity will pull the ink away from the ball.
    • Gravity pulling on ink NOT EQUAL to no gravity.

    • by angusr ( 718699 ) on Friday October 24, 2003 @08:55AM (#7299265)
      (That'll teach me to check that I'm actually logged in before posting...)

      Because gravity is still in action on the ink when the pen is horizontal, at a guess. Writing with the pen held horizontally isn't the same as writing in microgravity - in microgravity the stickiness of the ink is more than capable of pulling more ink towards the ball as it writes, whereas with the pen held horizontally in normal G it still has to pull ink "uphill" against gravity towards the top of the ball.

      It'a another example of how nearly impossible it is to extrapolate what happens in space or on the Moon from our experiences on Earth - for more examples, check out Bad Astronomy on the Apollo "Hoax" []

    • Because after five minutes you feel dumb and opt for a horizontal surface?
    • Possibly because the wall is a hard surface? I used to use a concrete desk (it had a microscope on it, so it had to be heavy and immobile) and I couldn't use most ballpoints on that because the area of contact was low.
    • There has to be some force acting on the ink to get it to move at all. With a pen held upright, gravity and surface tension are acting in concert to get ink onto the ball. Invert the pen, and gravity is now opposing surface tension. At some critical value of g, the surface tension and gravity will be exactly equal and the ink will stay where it is. With stronger g, as on Earth, gravity will win over surface tension and the ink will be pulled away from the ball. With weaker g, surface tension will be st
    • You can buy pens that get around this problem. The Cross Ion is a good example; in the ink cartridge (non-pressurized), above the ink, there is what appears to be a clear gel that prevents the ink from moving. As the ink in the cartridge (The ballpoint is part of the cartridge) is used up, the gel travels down the barrel with the ink.

      The pen works perfectly well upside down, I've tried. Probably doesn't cost as much as a pressurized pen either :p
  • Movie quote (Score:4, Funny)

    by ArbiterOne ( 715233 ) on Friday October 24, 2003 @08:37AM (#7299135) Homepage
    "We spent millions of dollars developing the Space Pen program. Know what the Russians did? They used a pencil."
    • Re:Movie quote (Score:2, Informative)

      by Madcapjack ( 635982 )
      This is an urban legend (but yes, quoted in a movie) / []

  • Are we talking about a pen that would be used in the space capsule or shuttle or outside in a vacuum?
  • by harris s newman ( 714436 ) on Friday October 24, 2003 @08:39AM (#7299151)
    I want a pen that has a help desk in india.
  • Be fair (Score:5, Insightful)

    by 0123456 ( 636235 ) on Friday October 24, 2003 @08:39AM (#7299154)
    He's writing in a space station that's pressurized and kept at around 20C. The 'space pen' was designed to work in a vacuum in a temperature range of something like -100C to +200C, as experienced on the lunar surface: try doing that with a $0.50 plastic ballpoint.
    • Re:Be fair (Score:3, Insightful)

      by willtsmith ( 466546 )
      There is also a danger that the pen will break. Imagine the pain of trying to clean off the walls (& Floating) in Zero G.
    • Oh well then you write with a pen inside the shuttle and when you have landed on the moon write with a pencil. Its not as if a broken pencil lead is going to fly off on the moon surface and hit a lunar goat in the ass
      Anyway what sort of paper holds up from -100 to 200C ?
      • Re:Be fair (Score:4, Funny)

        by kinnell ( 607819 ) on Friday October 24, 2003 @09:36AM (#7299532)
        Pencils don't work at -100C because the graphite freezes.
      • Re:Be fair (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Dun Malg ( 230075 ) on Friday October 24, 2003 @11:31AM (#7300677) Homepage
        Oh well then you write with a pen inside the shuttle and when you have landed on the moon write with a pencil. Its not as if a broken pencil lead...

        Pencils in spacecraft are a safety hazard for the very reason you state above. Not the lunar goats, but the broken lead. Graphite is conductive. Little bits of conductive material floating about in zero-G in a spacecraft full of electronic doodads is a catastrophic short circuit waiting to happen. Yeah, they shield the critical circuits, and yeah, it'd be better if every square centimeter of a spacecraft was checked for "graphite vulnerability", but the best solution is still to have a "no pencils" rule. Solves the problem nicely.

    • Of course for those cases a simple pencil would have worked - which they couldn't use in the space craft because the graphite dust might float into the electrical systems. You have to be pretty paranoid to develop a pen that can still be used in your craft after (or even during) it lost atmosphere and/or insulation.

      Huston, we have a problem. But at least our pen still works.

      • Of course for those cases a simple pencil would have worked - which they couldn't use in the space craft because the graphite dust might float into the electrical systems.

        Pencils used to use lead instead of graphite. Not good for the schoolkiddies, but it would have caused little harm for the astronauts. Since lead is a metal instead of a compressed powder, it shouldn't have the flaking problem that could cause circuit problems. I bet a government contractor could figure out how to make lead pencils a
    • I have to wonder how well paper would hold up in those conditions.
  • by bcolflesh ( 710514 ) on Friday October 24, 2003 @08:43AM (#7299175) Homepage
    "Here I am floating in my tin can far above the world planet Earth is blue and my trusty pen is too!"
    • MOD PARENT UP! (Score:2, Redundant)

      by mrtroy ( 640746 )
      This is Ground Control to Major Tom You've really made the grade And the papers want to know whose pen you use Now it's time to write in the capsule if you dare
  • by stankulp ( 69949 ) on Friday October 24, 2003 @08:43AM (#7299176) Homepage
    It's not gravity that pulls the ink through the tube.

    It's the surface tension propteries of the ink, commonly known as capillary action [].

    • Capilarry action? I thought that was the force behind my hair loss!
    • No. Theory is all good, but practice doesnt support it. Just try writing with a pen upside down or the pen kept horizontally (stick a paper to a wall and write on it), I bet you cant go more than a page (I tried it just now, did not last more than 3 lines). So this means that gravity against capillary action, gravity wins. But probably in space, zero gravity, capillary action might be enough to pull the ink.
      BTW: do the russians use smaller diameter refills? IIRC capillary force increases with smaller diame
    • It's not capillary action really... it is cohesion to the ball. The ball is rotated, and the ink would rather be on paper than the ball, so the ink leaves, thus creating a void which sucks in more ink.

      There are some real space pens that don't use nitrogen pressure and can be used in both freezing cold and blistering heat because the ink is actually a near solid. The ball's friction tears off the ink as it goes, and the suction (the ball is mainly used as a valve in almost all ink pens) pulls ink in witho
  • because they have multiple purposes. Imagine an electronic wire broke within the ISS: Using a pencil one can at least use the conducing graphite to link the two parts together again. I don't see you do this with a cheap (plastic) BIC-pen :=)
    Ofcourse, one can also break a pencil in two, and voila: TWO pencils, you colleague astronaut has one too now...

    Third option, that a pen doesn't normally provide, is the fact that a pencil can be erased more easily without nasty chemicals. Easy if you want to wipe ou
  • Are easily amused. Oooh look at me! My pen works in space!
  • by aquarian ( 134728 ) on Friday October 24, 2003 @08:48AM (#7299208)
    Surface tension is indeed the important factor, but what you're missing is this: although gravity is not needed for the pen to write, in space it's not working against you when you try to write upside down.
  • by amightywind ( 691887 ) on Friday October 24, 2003 @08:49AM (#7299218) Journal
    Roland Piquepaille writes "Some days bring big surprises. Like many people, I always believed that it was impossible to write in space with ordinary pens because ink would not flow. So imagine my astonishment when I read Pedro Duque's diary from space this morning...

    In the 60's we longed to use space technology to explore other worlds, and did a great job of it. Then we decided to make spaceflight routine and do great science on orbital space stations. They would be used as stepping stones to the Moon and Mars we were told. What we got is an expensive, perpetual, and feckless welfare program for the exploration of triviality. In the 30 years since Apollo we have answered such pressing questions as: How long does it take to get sick in space while spinning on a gyroscope? Can spiders spin webs in zero g? Can ballpoint pens work in space? With the exception of planetary missions, the current space program is a complete waste.

    • Billions of dollars have been siphoned to US technology companies, to precisely those companies in the districts of the senators and representative who voted for this "feckless welfare program." It has served the purpose it was designed for quite well. Are you some sort of Pinko Commie or what? ; )
  • is how he got it past security. Does he have a nail file to? Someone should lock up this terrorist! Somebody call Ashcroft!
  • Didn't this remind anyone of the Seinfeld episode [] with the famous Fisher Pen [] ?
  • Surface tension is the important factor for all pens, not gravity.

    I cannot agree. My ballpoint pen (el cheapo model, one with transparent body) stops when, for instance, I have to write something in the corridor and the only thing to put the paper against is the wall. It takes several sentences in this position in order to make the ink flow uneven (I lack the word, I mean there are interruptions) and eventually it stops. I can restore normal operation then by blowing air into the hole on pen's top.


  • by adeyadey ( 678765 ) on Friday October 24, 2003 @09:38AM (#7299548) Journal
    "We spent millions of dollars developing the Space Pen program. Know what the Russians did? They used a pencil."

    Its almost too neat not to be true, and in a way it is! Ok, in fact it was an independant company that spent $1 million on developing a "space" pen, and not NASA themselves, but in the end the US did spend the money, whereas the Russians were happy with the low-tech solution, although of course they took advantage of the high-tech solution once the money was spent.

    The above Russian/US comparison probably holds up better today than the 60's - currently the US is spending $3 billion/year on the (white elephant) Shuttle, whereas the Russians are keeping the ISS running at under $100 million a mission.

    Below is a related extract from a piece posted on, by Robert Zubrin - an advocate of reform in the US space program - interesting reading...

    In the recent Columbia hearings, numerous members of congress continually decried the fact that the US space program is "stuck in Low Earth Orbit." This is certainly a serious problem. If it is to be addressed adequately, however, America's political leadership needs to reexamine NASA's fundamental mode of operation.

    Over the course of its history, NASA has employed two distinct modes of operation. The first, prevailed during the period from 1961-1973, and may therefore be called the Apollo Mode. The second, prevailing since 1974, may usefully be called the Shuttle Era Mode, or Shuttle Mode, for short.

    In the Apollo Mode, business is conducted as follows. First, a destination for human spaceflight is chosen. Then a plan is developed to achieve this objective. Following this, technologies and designs are developed to implement that plan. These designs are then built, after which the mission is flown.

    The Shuttle Mode operates entirely differently. In this mode, technologies and hardware elements are developed in accord with the wishes of various technical communities. These projects are then justified by arguments that they might prove useful at some time in the future when grand flight projects are initiated.

    Contrasting these two approaches, we see that the Apollo Mode is destination driven, while the Shuttle Mode pretends to be technology driven, but is actually constituency driven. In the Apollo Mode, technology development is done for mission directed reasons. In the Shuttle Mode, projects are undertaken on behalf of various internal and external technical community pressure groups and then defended using rationales. In the Apollo Mode, the space agency's efforts are focused and directed. In the Shuttle Mode, NASA's efforts are random and entropic.

    Imagine two couples, each planning to build their own house. The first couple decides what kind of house they want, hires an architect to design it in detail, then acquires the appropriative materials to build it. That is the Apollo Mode. The second couple polls their neighbors each month for different spare house-parts they would like to sell, and buys them all, hoping to eventually accumulate enough stuff to build a house. When their relatives inquire as to why they are accumulating so much junk, they hire an architect to compose a house design that employs all the knick-knacks they have purchased. The house is never built, but an adequate excuse is generated to justify each purchase, thereby avoiding embarrassment. That is the Shuttle Mode.

    In today's dollars, NASA average budget from 1961-1973 was about $17 billion per year. This is only 10% more than NASA's current budget. To assess the comparative productivity of the Apollo Mode with the Shuttle Mode, it is therefore useful to compare NASA's accomplishments between 1961-1973 and 1990-2003, as the space agency's total expenditures over these two periods were equal.

    Between 1961 and 1973, NASA flew the Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Skylab, Ranger, Surveyor, and Mariner missions, and did all the development for the Pioneer, Viking, and Voyager missions as well. In addition, t
    • In today's dollars, NASA average budget from 1961-1973 was about $17 billion per year. This is only 10% more than NASA's current budget.

      I like many of the points raised here, but this one is perhaps a little misleading. The window chosen, 1961-1973, does correspond to the Apollo Era (from Kennedy's mandate to Apollo 17's departure from the lunar surface), but it does not correspond to the funding associated with the Apollo Mode described.

      Funding rapidly increased in the early 1960's to support the R&
      • Well, the choice of dates in not arbitrary - it starts with "We will go to the moon", and ends with "bye bye moon". The fact is that NASA did a lot of exploration and development in that period - not just Apollo, but the Mariners, etc - amazing technological steps in a short time. With that later reduced funding they were designing pioneer & voyager - also great achievements. Even if the funding was more evenly spread 90-2003, the fact remains they seem to have achieved less, especially in terms of mann
        • the choice of dates in not arbitrary

          I didn't say they were arbitrary, just inappropriate to answering the question of "How much does Apollo Mode cost?"

          Also, I agree it is clear that NASA today is not getting the biggest bang per buck possible -- but this is largely because of the dramatically lower year on year funding, something masked by the 1961-1973 window. This reduced funding meant (the shuttle is an excellent case in point) that high development cost but low operating cost designs had to be abando
    • That Zubrin essay is fantastic, thanks for posting it. Do you have the original URL for it?

      For more material like this, it's worth reading his book The Case for Mars [], which pretty much covers (a slightly earlier version of) the same turf, but at greater length & so in greater detail. He makes a very strong case for why the current shuttles & stations space program is such a waste of resources, and how easy it could be -- cheap, safe, and reliable -- to set up a long term, long duration Martian expl

    • Actually, the problem with a pencil is that you really don't want little flammable bits of wood shavings and graphite floating around your closed environment, if you can at all avoid it.

  • Surface tension is the important factor for all pens, not gravity.
    Really? How about we do a little experiment then. Take a pen, and write on a wall. Or maybe even write something upside-down.
    Soon, you'll find that the pen doesn't work. Why? Because ink is being actively pulled away from the ball by gravity. All his ability to write in space does is prove that the ink doesn't have to be pulled to the ball, so long as its not pulled away from it. Makes sense - the ink is just wandering around inside t
    • Surface tension in a liquid applies to the liquid, not other objects that might contain the liquid.

      In microgravity, water pulls itself into a sphere, because of surface tension (a sphere provides the minimum surface area for a given volume).

      The water will push itself out of the glass in the act of forming the sphere and happily float through the air as a slightly oscillating sphere. It looks rather cool, actually.
  • by moonboy ( 2512 ) on Friday October 24, 2003 @09:46AM (#7299602) Homepage
    See, space exploration is still teaching us new things. What a breakthrough!
  • I learned how to write in school. But I don't think I have used that skill since then...
  • truly is a thing of wonder. Not much biger than your standard NATO round, mine continues to write as it did the day I got it twelve years ago. (Obviously I'm not writing with it all that much, but a true testament to the ink used).
  • You can easily experiment writing without gravity. Or didn't you guys buy Windows XP?
  • of course its surface tension, like liquid sticks together with itself and some liquid like ink sticks to surfaces too (otherwise your words would roll off the paper.... DUH!)

    But its gravity that causes ink to fall back away from a pen point, so yeah what we really have with those specially designed space pens is really earth pens that can write upside down in the gravity of earth.

    Its all about what space you are talking about and of course marketing...

    How many bought a space pen while having absolutely
  • How does fire look without gravity? I mean, standard open flame always directs itself upwards by heating air and making it lighter than surrounding, making it flow upwards. But what, if there's enough air, but no "upwards"? A ball of fire that lasts until it uses up all available oxygen? Some odd fractal? Somebody ask the astronauts to light a match for a moment and send us a movie!
    • This has been tested using a candle on (I believe) one of the first Shuttle missions in the early '80s. Essentially, the flame is a sphere, instead of the traditional oval-ish shape. As long as a slight air current is present (which is on a shuttle due to the ventilation system, and movement in general), the flame will remain lit. If the candle is placed in a sealed container, it will consume the oxygen in the immediate vicinity of the flame, then extinguish. Interestingly, if oxygen is reintroduced to the
    • A ball of fire that lasts until it uses up all available oxygen?

      Yup []. That's about right. []
  • of the things that people marvelled at was that they would write under water.

  • Please tell me again why they dont use laptops?

    I understand there were no laptops in the 60s when they sent the first people up. but wouldnt the new picturebooks be lighter than a writing pad plus a paper?

    And with the new digital cameras, we should be getting much higher resolutions of pictures we see around.
  • by First Person ( 51018 ) on Friday October 24, 2003 @12:15PM (#7301202)
    Not to be Cross, but Captain Parker's use of a Waterman in orbit is no Bic deal.
  • In December 1967 he sold 400 Fisher Space Pens to NASA for $2.95 each.

    I'm sure the gov't still found *some* way to spend $500 each on them.

The shortest distance between two points is under construction. -- Noelie Alito