The Smell of Outer Space

The Smell of Outer Space

 Ok, well technically if you tried to smell outer space by going into outer space, then taking off the helmet of your spacesuit, things would go south for you pretty quickly.  Since space is mostly a vacuum, a) there aren’t many molecules to smell, and b) the various fluids in your body would quickly equilibrate with the environment.  The air in your lungs would expand violently, all the spit would evaporate out of your mouth, and then your blood would boil, so let me say it here: DON’T GO TRYING TO SMELL OUTER SPACE IN ACTUAL OUTER SPACE!!!  Rather, wait for someone to re-create the smell and bring it to you here on earth.  That’s exactly what Sfumato did for the Detroit Space Party at the Michigan Science Center. 

So what is the closest you can get to actually smelling space without being horribly killed?  Probably it is on the return from a space walk, in the first instants after entering the shuttle air-lock, re-pressurizing, and removing your helmet. As it turns out, several of the astronauts that have gone space-walking have reported a distinct odor at exactly this moment.  There are several theories about what causes the smell, from the equipment operating the air-lock, to interactions between space particles and space suits, but it’s a lot cooler if you think of it as THE SMELL OF OUTER SPACE. 

Folks have said space smells like hot metal and seared meats.  Astronaut Thomas Jones said it "carries a distinct odor of ozone, a faint acrid smell…a little like gunpowder, sulfurous."  Tony Antonelli, another space-walker, said space "definitely has a smell that's different than anything else."  A gentleman named Don Pettit was a bit more verbose on the topic:  "Each time, when I repressed the airlock, opened the hatch and welcomed two tired workers inside, a peculiar odor tickled my olfactory senses," Pettit recalled. "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."  He concluded: 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.”

So, I set out to re-create the smell of space.  For the smokiness, I chose some birch tar, which is dry-distilled and has a deep campfire aroma.  For the hot metal meatiness, I used Helichrysum flower, which is the smell of delicious ham bacon in floral form.  Anise was the sharp acridness, and Iwas tempted to throw in some asafetida (which apparently draws its name from the fact that it smells like fetid ass) for the sulphur, but thought better of it at the last second.  The resulting mixture was misted into a jar with some aluminum foil (not for the smell, but to suggest a metallic, space-aginess) and presented to guests at the Space Party.  The reactions were out of this world.      

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