A few days ago, I realized, with a sharp jolt, that I wouldn’t be able to carry an ink bottle onto the plane with me during my upcoming summer of world travel.

If you’re a normal person, this might not register as an issue–an inconvenience on the same level as a coffeeshop lacking a hitching post for your horse, or the discovery that none of the supermarkets in town offer telegraph services. But since the beginning of the year, I’ve been writing almost exclusively with fountain pens, going so far as to replace my long-beloved Parker Jotter with them. As much as it may seem a blast from the past, I own and use bottles of ink with some regularity, and not only was I going to be unable to keep them in my carry-on, even if I checked a fragile glass bottle of deeply colored ink, carrying it around in my backpack seemed like an invitation for disaster. Traveling with my fountain pens was simply not going to work. What was I to do?

It was only after that brief panic that I realized I’d already anticipated this dilemma and purchased a Fisher Space Pen M4B for my travels. I am a forgetful man.

Why This Pen?

You have, I’m sure, heard of the Fisher Space Pen. There’s that tired story about how NASA, upon realizing ballpoint pens wouldn’t work in zero-gravity, poured millions of dollars and countless hours into developing a pressurized pen that would, whereas the Russians just used a pencil.1As it turns out, in zero-G, the graphite dust produced by pencils would float around in the air and pose a major fire hazard. The pen actually makes sense. The Space Pen is that supposedly over-designed writing tool.

It writes upside-down. It writes underwater. It writes in zero-gravity. It writes in temperatures ranging from a frigid -30ºF (-34ºC) to a scalding, “why am I even writing things in this heat?” 250ºF (121ºC). It can do all of this thanks to its pressurized ink cartridge, allowing Fisher to bill the pen as the “most versatile pen ever made.”

My travel plans don’t include journaling underwater in a blistering hot spring, nor is taking notes upside-down on a mountain peak on my itinerary. I was, however, interested in a fairly rugged pen that I could throw in a backpack without worry.2If we’re being honest, I was also looking for an excuse to buy another pen, because I always am. After all, I could have bought an 8-pack of Bic ballpoints, but where’s the fun in that? The FSP, particularly the M4B model (which is made of brass and steel with a matte black finish), came with no shortage of glowing Amazon reviews from Eagle Scouts and armed forces servicemembers, not to mention the reputation of writing in any situation short of being smothered in lava. Plus, it was only $13 on Amazon. I figured I’d give it a shot.

Presentation

My M4B arrived in a shrink-wrapped black paper box. The pen, sitting in a sort of trough, was visible through a rocket-shaped window in the box’s outer sleeve, while the back of the box, unsurprisingly, featured information about the pen’s design, including the phrase “thixotropic ink.” Such linguistic extravagance seems only fitting for a pen that would likely write graffiti on the inside of a shark’s stomach–if you’re going to overdesign things, why stop at the product itself?

The pen itself has a handsome, if understated, design. The whole thing, from end to end, is finished with a matte black coating (save, of course, for the writing tip). It has a slim barrel, only slightly bigger around than your typical wood pencil, the top third of which is a cap. This one’s a Cap-O-Matic model, which means that the writing tip extends and retracts by clicking the cap–you can’t pull the cap off the back and cover the end of the pen with it.

 Fisher Space Pen

The presentation isn’t extravagant, but it is nice. The box is classy and seems like a mild congratulation for buying the pen, and the pen itself is attractive without being flashy. The all-black construction strikes me as fairly unique, as I expect most pens with black bodies to have silver or gold clips–the FSP M4B bucks that expectation. My only concern is that if I drop it in the pitch black of nighttime, there’s no way I’ll ever find it again. 😛

Performance

If I’d reviewed this pen four months ago, before I’d ever touched a fountain pen, I might have a different tune. But after months of writing with pens that glide effortlessly across the page, writing with a ballpoint–even a pressurized, indestructible ballpoint with thixotropic ink–is irksome, to say the least. The Fisher Space Pen might be a nice ballpoint, but it’s still a ballpoint, which means you’ve still got to push into the page to write with it (leading more quickly to hand cramps), the ink is still that unappealing dry gray, and the tip is still rough and broad.

That said, the FSP is better than many other ballpoints. It doesn’t require quite as much pressure to write as my old Parker Jotter, and the ink flow was smooth with no skipping (although I did get a couple dark ink blobs now and again).

When it comes to versatility, it definitely stands up to the hype. I don’t have easy access to extreme temperatures, but I tried writing with the Fisher Space Pen on normal printer paper (dry and wet), on receipts, underwater (or, rather, in a dish of water), and upside down, and it wrote without complaint in all of those conditions. The only trouble I encountered was when I tried to write on a wax-coated green tea latte carton from the recycle; the FSP did not take kindly to the waxy surface and skipped significantly. If you’re planning on doing some eXtreme carton labeling, this probably isn’t the pen for you; otherwise, it is indeed quite versatile.

You’d expect such a versatile writing tool to feel bulletproof, and that’s where the Fisher Space Pen really struggles. The clicking mechanism–I think it’s called the “knock”?–is incredibly soft. There’s no crisp click, either in sound or feel, when you push down on the pen and engage its extension/retraction mechanism, but instead a gentle bump that reminds me (for some reason) of rolling over the edge of a low curb. To me, it feels uncomfortably loose and imprecise.

In fact, it’s not just a feeling of imprecision. It’s not difficult to extend the tip with the wrong touch, causing the cartridge to get slightly misaligned in the barrel so that instead of extending out to its full length and then naturally retracting to its writing position, the tip gets lodged in its fully-extended position until you write with it, applying pressure and causing it to spring back into the place it should have been all along. Even if this never affects my actual writing, it makes the pen feel sloppy and unpredictable instead of like an instrument of mechanical precision, and I don’t much like that.

Replacing the cartridge is done by rotating the cap section counterclockwise (as viewed from the top). After about 120 degrees of rotation, you encounter some resistance, and I was originally hesitant to rotate any further, concerned I might break a spring or strip some interior threading or something. After watching a YouTube review of the pen, though, I realized I was not in danger of damaging the pen, so I pushed beyond that tight spot and was able to access the cartridge. That review also pointed out something I hadn’t noticed on my own: there are no loose parts inside the barrel, so you don’t have to keep track of things like tiny springs when you’re changing the ink. That’s a definite plus.

Finally, the clip at the end is solid and secure. It’s great for clipping onto shirt pockets, although in my testing, it struggled with heavier fabrics such as denim. You’d probably have to open the clip manually if you want to clip it on to your jeans, and that will be no small feat, considering how strong the clip is.

Conclusion

Ultimately, the Fisher Space Pen M4B is a good ballpoint pen. It hasn’t blown me away–the weak spring and occasional cartridge imprecision keep it from wowing me–but it’s definitely functional, and you can’t beat its legendary versatility. It should make a great companion this summer as I travel to Mexico, Italy, and India–and leave my poor beloved fountain pens at home.Fisher Space Pen on box

Final Grade

B

Pros

  • Writes, like, anywhere
  • Replaceable ink cartridges
  • Strong clip
  • Smooth, relatively easy writer (for a ballpoint)
  • No loose parts in barrel

Cons

  • Weak spring and clicker mechanism
  • Might be too slender for some
  • How to open barrel not clearly explained
  • Ballpoint ink just makes me 😢

Handwritten Review

(Sorry it’s not scanned; I don’t currently have access to a scanner.)


Disclaimer: I paid retail price for this pen and was not compensated by anyone. The opinions in this post are my own, not to mention organic, free-range, and gluten-free.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. As it turns out, in zero-G, the graphite dust produced by pencils would float around in the air and pose a major fire hazard. The pen actually makes sense.
2. If we’re being honest, I was also looking for an excuse to buy another pen, because I always am. After all, I could have bought an 8-pack of Bic ballpoints, but where’s the fun in that?