Fumes in the News: The Smell of Outer Space

Astronauts undergo years of training to prepare for life in space. They learn how to pee into their diapers upside-down, they master “drinking” coffee paste from a toothpaste tube, and they refine their animal husbandry skills for rearing Tribbles in zero gravity. Okay, so maybe I’m a little hazy on the specifics of astronaut school, but I do know that no one bothered to tell the newbies currently aboard the International Space Station one very important thing: space smells weird.

A story from Space.com today details astronauts’ reactions to spacey smells.

"It's a very, very different environment than I expected," said rookie shuttle pilot Kevin Ford.

"From the [spacewalks] there really is a distinct smell of space when they come back in," Ford said from the station in a Friday night news conference. "It's like...something I haven't ever smelled before, but I'll never forget it. You know how those things stick with you."

“It’s like something I haven’t ever smelled before?” Great. The guy flies all the way into the cosmos and that’s the best he can do? Let’s hope Astronaut Ford reclaims his powers of description when he encounters an alien, or meets God, or romps in the celestial My Little Pony corral far beyond the Milky Way. My outer space tax dollars are not paying for, “It’s hard to describe, but I’ll never forget it.”

In an earlier story from Space.com, former NASA astronaut Thomas Jones offered a more vivid olfactory account of unidentified flying odors. Jones believes the niff might stem from atomic oxygen that clings to spacesuit fabric.

"When you repressurize the airlock and get out of your suit, there is a distinct odor of ozone, a faint acrid smell," Jones told Space.com, adding that the smell is also similar to burnt gunpowder or the ozone smell of electrical equipment. "It's not noticeable inside the suit. The suit smells like plastic inside."

The smell, he adds, only occurs on a shuttle or the space station after a spacewalk and is unmistakable to astronauts working with the spacesuits and equipment that was used in the vacuum of space.

"In those tight spaces, your nose gets right next to the fabric," Jones said. "I like to think of it as getting a whiff of vacuum!"

Thank you, Astronaut Jones. You’re the man we need reporting from the celestial My Little Pony corral.