George Aldrich works at NASA and is not an astronaut. Instead, he's a 'master sniffer.' He tests everything that goes up in space on the shuttle or on the ISS for smelliness, from tennis shoes to teddy bears, and from refrigerators to socks or mascara. Why? Because things smell different in spacecrafts which experience a full day/night cycle every 90 minutes. And bad odors into a spacecraft can even lead to the abortion of a mission, like it happened to a Russian mission back in 1976. Wired Magazine tells us more about NASA's nasalnaut, a man whose colleagues call "Most Smella Fella" and has performed 771 flawless smelling missions.
Spacecraft are notoriously stinky. In orbit, they experience a full day/night cycle every 90 minutes. For half that time the sun heats the cabin, causing objects to off-gas, releasing volatile chemicals offensive to mammalian noses. Fabrics, paint, even electronics have odors, all but undetectable on the ground. In space, you can't just roll down a window or light a match.
Stinky things can even lead to the abortion of a space mission.
In 1976, halfway through Soyuz-21 -- the first manned voyage to the Salyut-5 space platform -- cosmonauts Vitaly Zholobov and Boris Volynov smelled something acrid coming from the Salyut's environmental control system. The two couldn't find the source of the problem; the odor became unbearable. They aborted the mission and returned home a month early. Suspected cause: fuel leaking into the air supply.
Angela Swafford, the author of the article, attended one of Aldrich's smelling missions, so read her article to discover the procedures.
But here is how he smells things (Credit: NASA).
Back in 2001, Angela Swafford interviewed George Aldrich who works at White Sands Test Facility’s Molecular Desorption and Analysis Laboratory. New Scientist published the conversation in Nose job. Here are some selected Q&As.
Do things smell differently in space?
Yes, it's because of the confined space and the heat. Think of a new car. If you parked it in normal weather with the window open, that new car smell would be there in the background. But if you parked it in the sun on a sweltering day with the windows up, then the smell would be pretty overpowering. You'd be speeding up the evaporation of the chemicals.
What kind of things do you smell?
Anything that goes inside the capsule. We do things like paints, magic markers, ink, fabrics, epoxies. We've done circuit boards, wires, socks, tennis shoes, shaving cream. We used to do a lot of female products. We did deodorised and non-deodorised tampons. We also did adult diapers. The astronauts wear diapers when they are out doing their space walks and that type of thing. We did a guitar and a case. We did toy animals like Chuckie Bear and Barney.
How do you go about testing an object?
We load the material into a sealed container and heat it to 120 °F (49 °C) for 72 hours. Then we inject the gas through a gas chromatograph, which gives us the quantity of the compounds, and a gas chromatograph mass spectrometer, which identifies them. That tells us whether there's anything toxic or carcinogenic in it. If it passes the toxicity test then it goes before the five people on the Odor Panel, who smell it and grade it on a scale from 0 to 4. Undetectable smells score 0, while 1 is barely detectable, 2 is easily detectable, 3 is objectionable, and 4 is very irritating or revolting. We take an average of the scores. Anything over 2.4 gets rejected.
Why doesn't NASA employ dogs or electronic devices to do your job?
For a start, dogs don't talk. You can throw odours at dogs but they can't tell you what it smells like. There are some electronic noses that are supposed to be pretty good, but in my opinion they don't come anywhere close to the range of the human nose. There's nothing better than the human nose. Take the case of the ink that blistered noses, or the straps with the aftertaste. An electronic nose is not going to be able to read those.
Congratulations to George Aldrich, who's doing this job for 27 years!
For more information, you might want to read a paper from NASA, The Nose Knows (PDF format, 2 pages, 171 KB).
Sources: Angela Swafford, Wired Magazine, Issue 12.03, March 2004; Angela Swafford, New Scientist, June 23, 2001