Does space really stink?

According to several NASA astronauts, space smells like fried steak or hot metal. In order to prepare future missions, NASA decided to hire a UK chemist to create these space smells in his lab. According to The Press Association article, the scientist has already worked for an art exhibition to recreate the smell of the inside of the Mir space station. Apparently, it's easy to create a smell, but is really something that smells in space? I have some doubts, but read more...

According to several NASA astronauts, space smells like fried steak or hot metal. In order to prepare future missions, NASA decided to hire a UK chemist to create these space smells in his lab. According to The Press Association article, the scientist has already worked for an art exhibition to recreate the smell of the inside of the Mir space station. Apparently, it's easy to create a smell, but is really something that smells in space? I have some doubts, but read more...

Steven Pearce of Omega Ingredients

You can see above Steven Pearce, the managing director of fragrance manufacturing company Omega Ingredients, who is helping NASA to recreate the smell of space in his lab. The above picture was taken recently at Moorside High School in Salford ahead of the Manchester Science Festival. (Credit: Manchester Evening News)

Here is a quote from Pearce. "'We have a few clues as to what space smells like. First of all, there were interviews with astronauts that we were given, when they had been outside and then returned to the space station and were de-suiting and taking off their helmets, they all reported quite particular odours. For them, what comes across is a smell of fried steak, hot metal and even welding a motorbike. The suggestion to us has been that it's about creating realism for their training, so they train the astronauts in their suits by putting them in big water tanks to simulate the loss of gravity and so it's just about making sure the whole thing is a realistic training exercise."

An article from Rachel Hoyes published on October 17, 2008 by the Manchester Evening News, Scent into outer space, provides additional details about Pearce work. "His research will be used to help astronauts prepare for the conditions they will encounter in space. Mr Pearce began working for Nasa in August and hopes to have recreated the smell of space by the end of the year." Pearce also brought his expertise to pupils at Moorside High School in Salford ahead of the Manchester Science Festival as you can see on the picture above.

Another article from BBC News, The power of smell, reports additional thoughts from Pearce. "I was a bit surprised when they got in touch. What they want is for me to make the smell of space, so they can make their training exercises with astronauts more realistic. So when they are pretending to do a space walk by floating in a swimming pool, it will smell of outer space. What they've done is asked astronauts who've done space walks to describe what the smell was like. They said it has a kind of metallic smell like fried steak or hot metal. What I will do is try and re-create those particular odours. I'll let Nasa have samples and we'll fine tune it until I've got what they want."

Here are two links to short movies about this project. The first one is available from the Manchester Evening News article mentioned above (1 minute and 45 seconds). The other one is available on another BBC page carrying a strange title, Why astronauts will smell space, and lasts 3 minutes and 5 seconds.

But does this research make sense? The Sun, the UK tabloid, doesn't think so. In Space smells of steak, say Nasa, David Willetts asked astronomer Sir Patrick Moore what he thought. His answer is enclosed on a box on the right. "These odours may have come from astronauts' suits or spaceships. The vacuum of space is unlikely to have its own scent. It is more likely to be reacting to man-made equipment. There is nothing in space and nothingness cannot really have a smell. Boys or girls attempting to go to space because they think there is fried steak flying about might be disappointed."

The Sun also imagined some movie titles about this story. I personally like "The Right Sniff" and "Aroma-geddon," but feel free do discover the other candidates.

Finally, even if astronomer Sir Patrick Moore is skeptical, let's read at ISS Science Officer Don Pettit was writing in 2003 in The Smell of Space where he described his experience when his fellow astronauts enter the ISS after a space walk. "Each time, when I repressed the airlock, opened the hatch and welcomed two tired workers inside, a peculiar odor tickled my olfactory senses. At first I couldn't quite place it. It must have come from the air ducts that re-pressed the compartment. Then I noticed that this smell was on their suit, helmet, gloves, and tools. It was more pronounced on fabrics than on metal or plastic surfaces. It is hard to describe this smell; it is definitely not the olfactory equivalent to describing the palette sensations of some new food as 'tastes like chicken.' The best description I can come up with is metallic; a rather pleasant sweet metallic sensation."

So here is a question for you. Do you believe an astronomer with common sense, but never went into space, or an ISS science office? Drop me a note.

Sources: The Press Association, UK, October 17, 2008; and various websites

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