Posted by: David | January 9, 2010

The Smell Of Space

Space, the final frontier. Yes! Astronauts who’ve been out for “space walks” report this acrid odor on their spacesuits after they come back into the space station. Here’s a little article copied from one of NASA’s websites on human space flight.

The Smell of Space

by ISS Science Officer Don Pettit

Few people have experienced traveling into space. Even fewer have experienced the smell of space. Now this sounds strange, that a vacuum could have a smell and that a human being could live to smell that smell. It seems about as improbable as listening to sounds in space, yet space has a definite smell. Being creatures of an atmosphere, we can only smell space indirectly. Sort of like the way a pit viper smells by waving its tongue in the air and then pressing it to the roof of its mouth where sensors process the molecules that have been adsorbed onto the waggling appendage. I had the pleasure of operating the airlock for two of my crewmates while they went on several space walks. 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.

A Hubble Space Telescope 2009 photograph of The Butterfly Nebula (or NGC 6302).

When I was a kid, I was fascinated by All Things Space. Star Trek, Lost in Space, the real US Space Program, Projects Gemini and Apollo, etcetera (Mercury too, of course, but I was a mere toddler then). I wanted to be an astronaut when I grew up. I remember going to see 2001: A Space Odyssey at a theatre in Miami when it was first released in 1968. My friend’s dad took us. Though aware that I didn’t really get it, I remember feeling hypnotized by it. Soon thereafter I got and listened to soundtrack LP over and over. I think my mom may have gifted me that album. The Blue Danube waltz and that dramatic Thus Spake Zarathustra bit by the other Strauss guy kindled my later love of classical music. I remember my friend’s dad saying afterward that the movie had been ‘incomprehensible’. My 12 year old brain accepted that as some kind of critique. I didn’t know what incomprehensible meant. (!) Funny enough.

My favorite movie ever. (I saw the World Premiere of Star Wars at Grauman’s Chinese Theater in May, 1977 with a friend attending USC. It was way too loud.)

In the years following I took friends to see 2001 just to get their impressions. Remember this was the ’70s, before there were even VCRs. I stopped counting how many times I’d seen it after 15 or 20. I had the book, the soundtrack LP, a book about the making of the movie, and had even read Arthur C. Clarke’s related book (Childhood’s End, which upon rereading last year had forgotten, or maybe had not realized as a kid just how sad it was). I remain to this day a little obsessed with the idea of the “star child”; the successor entity to humanity. That was the little baby seen orbiting the Earth at the end of the movie. That baby could’ve kicked HAL 9000’s sorry computer ass all over the solar system. At one point I could quote the entire movie line for line. (Except for the man-apes’ lines.) I’m sorry Dave, I’m afraid I can’t do that … Stop, Dave. Will you stop? Sorry, no. Not stopping …

Director Stanley and some moon guys taking a smoke break in the shadow of the mysterious monolith. Image from Encyclopedia Britannica

It seems comical now, sort of. But not really. I’m that nerd. I own the DVD and still watch it about once a year. It’s held up well, and it informed my photographic eye as I entered young adulthood. I think that it was Kubrick’s greatest work, with Dr. Strangelove in the number 2 spot. We never got to Clavius Base, a routine moon destination in the movie. The real year 2001 sent us on another sort of odyssey altogether. But the space shuttle, or Space Transportation System in NASA parlance, has been the mainstay of our presence in orbit, bringing to orbit the majority of the components of the International Space Station. Will we go forth and travel the unimaginable distances of sci-fi lore? Maybe. If we don’t destroy ourselves first. It looks dubious at this point …

From the movie, a Pan Am product placement which Dr. Heywood R. Floyd took to Space Station 5 on his way to the moon. The real space shuttle looks kinda like it, no? Pan Am went under in 1991.

So, now we know that space is smelly. Maybe that’s not very helpful information. But what I really wanted to write about space is this. It’s NOT the final frontier. Rather, it’s something that we all need more of. As Uncle Albert (Einstein) told us, physical space is not quite what we tend to think it is. It’s bound together with time. Spacetime. You cannot move through one without moving through the other. Even if you’re made of light. I like to think of space and time as another pair of fundamental dualities. Like good and evil, yin and yang, everything and nothing, peanut butter and jelly, etcetera. I’m not a physicist, but my imaginary guru once commanded me: BE like the gerbil. No idea what that meant. But it sounded cosmic. Don’t recommend imaginary gurus.

Spacetime is provided to us in a finite quantity. So let’s not waste it. And let’s not bother trying to fill it up, because it’s not really possible. OK, now you’re really wondering why you’ve wasted the last 10 minutes reading this far … what the HELL am I trying to say? It’s simple but profound. We are running all around trying to find stuff with which to fill our lives.  And no matter how much stuff we find, it’s never enough, and it’s all so damned arbitrary. So how about making, or not making, an effort to leave some emptiness? Yeah, a conscious effort to leave at least one room in the House Of Our Mind without a stick of furniture. Without a rug on the floor. No pictures on the walls. Nothing. Empty. You may not smell the odor of space in there, but the acoustics will be amazing. Bring a musical instrument to play when you go in there. Whistling or singing is good too. Listen to the silences between the notes. Make up the tune as you go.

Peace out yo! May the space be with you. 🙂


  1. You, sir, have lifted my spirits in a way I can’t even explain! I’d never heard that space has a smell. Had never even thought about it before. Nor had I seen that pic of the Butterfly Nebula before. I’ve been awed by space since I was a kid, since the first time my parents took us to the mountains and I saw, from high altitude and with zero light pollution, how spectacular the night sky really is. I’ve lived from the silly sci-fi movies of the 1950s through man’s landing on the moon to putting rovers on Mars. How can anyone not be moved by stuff like this!?

    But I guess I’m preaching to the choir, huh? 🙂

    Well thank you PT for that lovely comment! The universe is awe inspiring for sure. I remember laying back on the grass and looking up at the stars with my high school girlfriend (my first love, actually, and first heartbreak, as it turned out) and commenting on how if one stared up into the starry heavens for just long enough, one could actually FEEL oneself, and the entire Earth, suspended therein … losing one’s sense of up and down. It was magical. For me anyway. She probably was thinking ‘jeez what a freakin nerd this guy is’.

    But I’m no choirboy, and my reverence for our exploring spirit is tempered by despair over the waste of money and lives in human space flight. It’s as inevitable as was our taking to the seas and discovering the New World. But in all these outward journeys, we forget the importance of traveling inward. That was the sad part of Arthur C. Clarke’s novel Childhood’s End. Humanity is redeemed from the brink of self-extermination by an advanced race of extraterrestrials, who, oddly enough, look like the devil, with horns and tails. A vast universal hive-mind swallows humanity and we become entities of pure thought, as the Earth is destroyed. 😦

  2. This kind of thing is so nice to take your collective minds off the real thing.

    What do you think might happen if about 80 or maybe 90% would read about imaginary places and people rather than about their own country, if in addition those 80% with their votes decide the future of the world?

    Exactly! These imaginings are the same ones that took us across the seas in centuries past. The greener grass, eh?

    Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. Matthew 6:34

  3. It has been snowing here, and the streets are deserted. No cars. Maybe there is a pile-up somewhere. Some years ago, the tanks had to be called out to go and help people stranded on the highways.

    As to the Matthew quote: it does not work. Those who don’t try to understand, how will they vote? Or did you mean they should not vote either? Put in some old wise Santa and have him look after us all.

    A broad trend there. Massive.

    Yes, I guess you don’t get snow too often. Good that the people don’t try to drive their cars.

    The Matthew quote works for me. It may not connect to the previous thought, but I never promised to make sense, did I? Elections are nothing but theater and it doesn’t matter what the voters think they know. They know nothing. The whole system is an archaic fantasy. I’m in a very cynical mood this evening sorry …

  4. I do not think it is possible even to think of today without including part of yesterday and much of tomorrow, both orientations based on …….. what?

    That’s the thing that makes all the difference.

    It’s a meditation. It simply means to focus on the present and neither dwell upon what’s finished nor anticipate the crap around the next corner. Both orientations are based on the now, where the thought is occurring.

  5. But “now”, even psychologically has zero dimensions. Today is mostly a copy of yesterday and anyway in all regards yesterday’s sequel.

    I think your maxime is “un brindis al sol”: “congratulations to the sun”.

    The best example of that kind of intentional delusion was Edith Piaf’s song “Rien de rien” where she successfully popularized the idea that you can throw your past away and start anew.

    The curious thing is not in the delusion, but in its intention.

    You say that like there’s something wrong with zero dimensions.

    I sometimes cannot tell when you are teasing me. I’m too dense to pick up on your subtle syntax.

    Un brindis al sol. OK, that works. O happy day.

  6. I’m reminded of something I wrote in my journal when I was in high school: “Where ever I am, I am the absence of space. When I move, space moves in to fill the space where I was.”
    I think that’s how it went… Trippy, huh?
    I just finished listening to A Wrinkle in Time – if you haven’t read it, you might (maybe) enjoy it. Some think it is a tad too religious but the space travel and quirky angels were wonderful to me. 🙂

    I remember listening to that L’Engle book on the radio years ago. It was delightful. As is your high school notion of being the “absence of space”! Religious themes in sci fi are just fine with me. Not be blasphemous or anything, but theology is just science fiction without the science. Cough cough.

  7. “Zero dimension” is used in geometry, isn’t it? It means “non-existant”, imaginary. It is also used to explain the invention of the zero in maths.

    I did not mean to say there was something wrong, but that it did not exist. If you or Matthew base a slogan on it, you are advertising something imaginary which is sometimes good, often bad, but mostly redundant.

    Anyway, the slogan that “now” is all-important is part of the almighty utopia that has been financed and pushed by your dollar printing presses for 30 years.

    • Okay, sorry to continue on my nerdy slant, but zero dimension can be thought of as a set in which each element is “isolated”. An example of this is the rational numbers. There is a gap between rational numbers (think fractions), no matter how much you “zoom in” on the number line, because you need the real numbers to fill in the gaps. The rationals converge to the reals. Another example is the Cantor set. Zero dimensional does not imply imaginary.

      • Thank you Lake Crazy! Your nerdy slant is always welcome here. You out-nerded me so many years ago. In the interest of full disclosure, cantueso, you should know that Lake Crazy is a mathematician, and yet when she writes “imaginary” above, she does not mean the square root of negative one.

        The rationals converge to the reals. Though I don’t fully understand that statement, I can feel its correctness. 🙂

        And the USA was not the first nation to create “value” out of the vacuum. Is there an accusatory tone in your comment? I cannot agree that imagination is redundant. Though imaginings must be based on reality’s objects, they possess, hopefully, some novel aspect which takes them beyond redundancy.

        • But no.

          Imaginings must not be based on reality’s objects. Imagination is necessary to figure out causes and effects and laws of every kind, and even to understand people.

          Darwin had to imagine things before he could go out and look for proof. A detective has to use his imagination to put two and two together to solve a murder.

          Maybe you mix up imagination and fantasy.

          But yes. If not based on real objects, then imaginings would be completely random, chaotic, incomprehensible. Modern physics gave up trying to distinguish causes from effects some time ago. Images derive from objects. In my opinion fantasy and imagination have more in common than in difference. Even if I am mixed up. 🙂

      • I would have imagined that, if it does not exist physically, it is a mental construct, and I would have thought that a mental construct is the same as imaginary.

        What would be wrong about that?

        Is this a trick question? I’m confused by the first statement. You seem to be agreeing with me. Our perceptions of reality are all imaginary. Physical existence is illusory, a dream. At least until the stone hits the cranium.

  8. Look what I found. I suspected but did not know I would have such illustrous backers.

    “Head of the Catholic Church Pope Benedict XIV has joined with leading evangelical atheist Richard Dawkins to declare that, while they may have their differences, the one thing that ticks them off more than anything else is people
    who, in a debate on the existence of an omniscient creator against the idea of a
    universe controlled by immutable scientific laws, will, ‘start getting mystical about life forces, and presence, and trees, for heaven’s sake’.

    What a nice find cantueso. Very “Onion-esque”. 🙂

  9. Liked your post Dave. Clearly I could stand clearing out a room in the House of MY Mind empty, maybe just taking a guitar in. Not such a good whistler or I would leave the guitar behind to not clutter the space up and just whistle away. Happy whistling.

    THANK YOU LakeCrazy. You are the only one so far who has commented on the main thought behind this silly post. Take the guitar in. Definitely. 🙂

  10. Space Camp was the big movie when I was a kid. I badly wanted to attend space camp. Now I read books about the Berenstain bears going to space to my imp.

    Poor Pluto.

    Huh, not something I would have guessed about you Allison. 🙂

    Not to be a wet blanket or anything, but when Space Camp was released I was still healing from the shock of the Challenger disaster, which hit us folks from New Hampshire a little harder because of Christa McAuliffe, the “Teacher in Space” who was killed. I’ve never seen the movie, but pre-judged it as something designed to help with national healing while the shuttle program was under review and the solid rocket boosters were being redesigned. President Reagan’s speech to the nation that day was moving.

    And yeah, Pluto got a raw deal.

    • I remember exactly where I was when that happened…sitting in classroom with the whole class watching it on tv. My teacher turned off the tv right after the explosion because she didn’t know how else to handle the situation. I didn’t really get it at the time.

      I bet a lot of teachers did that very same thing. It was really too much. “Obviously a major malfunction.” Nobody knew what the fate of the 7 aboard was until later that day. And apparently NASA was none too keen on revealing the more gruesome details of the astronauts’ demise as they became apparent in the following days. Which was that the crew very likely survived the breakup the vehicle and died a couple of minutes later when the crew cabin hit the ocean surface. Hopefully they were all unconscious, but we cannot know. I got it, having been a longtime observer of the space program, and as I sat there stunned on our couch with my kids (ages 2 and 5) I felt an anxiety unlike anything I’d ever experienced in my 30 years of life. It was amplified by the fact that we lived about a half-hour away from Concord, NH, where the “Teacher in Space”, Christa McAuliffe, had taught. My wife was a 1976 graduate of Concord Hight School.

  11. Imagination is used in intelligence tests. They show you a drawing of some cubicle and ask you to imagine what it looks like seen from the other side. It is the intellect’s main instrument.

    Fantasy is of an entirely different nature, mostly otiose, sometimes due to illness.

    Thought is not based on “material objects”, but on remembrances of every kind. Imagination is necessary to combine different images and notions into a conceptual instrument to help me do or figure out something.

    Yes, that is what I thought I was saying. We are in diametric agreement. My word choice could never match yours for accuracy. Remembrances can involve material objects as well as ideas and emotions. 🙂

  12. To illustrate the difference between imagination and fantasy.

    Ask somebody, an adult, to tell you exactly what he would do if he won ten million dollars.

    Most people’s answer will be a rather short fantasy: buy a car, buy a yacht, travel, buy more things,… and they run out of ideas.
    You reject this and say, no. you want it more exactly. They can’t.

    Find somebody who can imagine he needs a lawyer to go to the bank; how do you find a lawyer? Any friends available that could advise me on a good lawyer? ….Next, if this were solved? What would likely be the next step or worry?

    See? Fantasy leads the wrong way. Mostly, fantasy and imagination run contrary to each other. The reflections and ideas are not based on “material objects”, but on personal combinations of reminiscenses (which are partly images based on objects: yes.)

    OK, I think I see your distinction a little better now. Thanks for taking the time to elucidate. I stubbornly maintain that imagination and fantasy share a strong connection. And I don’t want to talk about it any more.

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