Astronaut describes what space smells like

On NASA's website, ISS Science Officer Don Pettit describes the "smell of space" -- long a staple of science fiction stories.
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. 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.
Link (via JWZ)

25

  1. Hmmm. Scent is actually small particles floating in the air. Your nose detects them chemically. Since space close to completely empty, I have to wonder if he’s actually smelling the spacecraft itself. Perhaps the process of opening and closing the airlock shears off tiny bits of metal from the spacecraft itself (say, from the air rushing out into space). That would explain why “space” smells metallic and resembles the smell of arc welding.

  2. Excellent #5; perhaps rubbing the spacesuit on parts of the door frame releases the smell.

    I guess this would make it:

    “Space: the final frotteur.”

  3. @ BRIT:

    I was thinking something similar; perhaps the burning of the fuel, paint chips, metallic debris that get caught in the fabrics while out in space or, while reentering the airlock.

  4. The smell is probably a combination of stuff that has been outgassed by the station or sputtered off of it redeposited on the suits. #5 has the idea, but it need not be sucked in or rubbed against to get the smell. The inside of vacuum chambers with plasma sources smells kinda like what the astronaut describes. Space is a pretty empty place, but the environment directly around the station is populated with all the crap that the station emits. I know that all the silicone that’s on the station is constantly sputtered off and redeposited on things; that’s why the station sucks for any kind of ionospheric instrumentation.

  5. There are these little cardboard scent things you can get for your car. I think a fresh pine scent or maybe vanilla is in oder…I mean Order. Apparently the Matrix stinks too.

  6. Not to mention the fact that the Sun was blastineg the hell out of everything. The outside of suits and everything else exposed to sunlight can reach temperatures of 300 F, is it possible this is what a cooked suit smells like.

  7. This subject appears to be getting old.
    Wasn’t an excerpt of Don Petit’s log posted not that long ago?

    We started hearing about this a couple years ago when Anousheh Ansari described a “burnt almond cookie” smell… or was it 2002 when Peggy Whitson, Valery Korzun and Sergei Treschev were interviewed.

  8. One of the Apollo astronauts (I forget which one) said that when the lunar module capsule pressurized, and they were able to take off their suits, the capsule interior smelled like cordite, which I have been told is sort of like a mix of gunpowder and alcohol or maybe gasoline. He said this was what the lunar dust that they carried in on their suits smelled like. I’ll take that as a difinitive source on what the moon smells like.

  9. “One of the Apollo astronauts (I forget which one) said that when the lunar module capsule pressurized, and they were able to take off their suits, the capsule interior smelled like cordite, which I have been told is sort of like a mix of gunpowder and alcohol or maybe gasoline. He said this was what the lunar dust that they carried in on their suits smelled like. I’ll take that as a difinitive source on what the moon smells like.”

    …The “cordite smell” was pretty much confirmed to be caused by the outgassing produced by the lunar dust oxidizing after several million years of being in a vacuum. As for the “smell” in this more recent description, I would suspect that we’re dealing with outgassing again, but from the EVA suits – especially if it’s the Russian ones – and whatever lining/coating/paint is on the inside of the airlock. Vacuum will cause outgassing on items you wouldn’t expect it to.

    …One other culprit, although I really have my doubts about it, is monatomic oxygen – O, not O2. One of the things that tore the hell out of many of the samples on the Long Duration Exposure Facility (LDEF) back in the late 80’s was determined to be caused by all that O. Mono-O is extremely erosive, and IIRC while it’s poisonous those who’ve smelt any significant quantity noted a rather odd smell before getting sick from breathing the stuff.

  10. Yup, there is no smell of space, maybe its the dust from the suits once there back in the ships environment.

  11. The ISS is at 340km – within the Thermosphere. That would be pretty far from empty, wouldn’t it? It seems like it would be full of ionized molecules, which would smell kinda burnt. But that would be very different from the smell of interstellar space, which would probably be all outgassing like Om says..

  12. i don’t see why there can’t be a smell to space. it may be a vacuum, but that doesn’t mean particles small enough to “smell” can be floating around out there.

  13. “If you fart in space does it make a sound?”

    …Actually, the real question is whether or not flatulence provides enough propulsion to actually move the mass of a human body in weightlessness. IIRC, the Skylab astronauts were asked this a few times – once by schoolkids! – and they skirted around the issue and changed the subject.

  14. That reminds me of the smell of cold… You know, when people have been outside in the winter and they come in and you notice that metallic smell?

  15. I thought that the peculiar smell created by arc welding was the smell of ozone. Is it possible that the exposure to intense solar radiation in space creates turns diatomic oxygen into ozone? I’m no chemist, so I couldn’t say. Ozone is detectable to the nose down to .01 PPM (Wikipedia), so it wouldn’t take a lot to makethe space suit smell.

  16. “The smell of welding” – ozone and oxidised metal, both quite common I would imagine when transitioning from the outside of a spacecraft to the pressurised interior.

    QM – I doubt a fart would cause any propulsion unless you exposed your rear end to space, and I think your main worry then would be keeping your insides where they’re supposed to be.

    Theoretically though, any outgassing in any direction will exert a propulsive force, moving the astronaut in the opposite direction, as there’s no friction to resist motion (pun intended). Obviously, the smaller the outgassing, the slower the motion, but any outgassing will produce some motion, even if it takes a year to measure it.

    I love that word, “Outgassing.” Come on, let’s say it together: “Outgassing.”

    Lovely.

  17. I kept thinking about the smell of space and then I saw a documentary about the CEK Mees Observatory in Hawaii, and one of the scientists said that the surface of the sun burns off into space at the rate of 1,000,000 MPH. After hearing that information, I thought, if the solar wind only takes about 93 minutes to get to earth’s orbit, why wouldn’t the smell that the astronauts described just be burnt sun? I know I am posting this way late, so maybe this will be lost in the stack. Just thought I’d add my .02 dollar’s worth.

Comments are closed.