What’s That Smell? Space of Course!
July 23, 2012

What’s That Smell? Space of Course!

Lee Rannals for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

While most of us on Earth are more curious about what it´s like working in an environment without gravity, a new curious element of the abyss has risen up.  What is that smell?

As astronauts return from spacewalks, they enter the airlock, remove their helmets, and are overwhelmed by a peculiar smell.

According to the account of a few astronauts who have experienced this, space apparently smells.  The aroma space exhibits is a mixture of meat, metal, gunpowder, rum and raspberries.

Don Pettit, a NASA astronaut who has been on a number of missions in space and experienced the aroma, wrote about the smell back in 2003.

"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," Pettit wrote in a blog on NASA.

"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. It reminded me of my college summers where I labored for many hours with an arc welding torch repairing heavy equipment for a small logging outfit. It reminded me of pleasant sweet smelling welding fumes. That is the smell of space."

NASA likes to be on top of things, helping its astronauts to transition from our natural environment to the environment of space as easy as possible.  That is why the space agency has hired chemist Steve Pearce at Omega Ingredients and Maverick Innovations to bottle the smell of outer space.

"We have been approached about helping with a project to re-create the smell of space," Pearce told Discovery in an interview. "Well, it's been termed the 'smell of space' by just about everyone now.  When astronauts come in from a spacewalk and remove their helmets, they've reported smells of 'seared steak,' 'hot metal' and 'arc welding on their motorbike."

"These are all consistent descriptions, not flukes," he told Discovery. "That lead us to conclude that the sensation is caused by some high-energy vibrations in particles brought back inside which mix with the air."

This isn't Pearce's only project taken on by NASA's request to create a smell from space.  Previously, he had to recreate the smell of the scent of the Mir space station.

According to Pearce based on astronauts' accounts, Mir smells like sweaty feet, stale body odor, nail polish remover and gasoline.