Smelling Space

Some people have unforgettable noses. Jennifer Grey (pre-surgery), Barbara Streisand, and Sarah Jessica Parker all make my list. Celebrity cosmetic surgeon Anthony Youn recently told Jane magazine that the most popular celebrity nose requested is Halle Berry’s. Of course our noses do more than define our faces; they allow us to explore a whole other dimension of reality.

I won’t go into the physics of smell, although you can a recent development here, instead I’m going to wonder out loud – why don’t we incorporate smell into science education? It might seem like a silly idea at first. I mean, who talks about the smell of a cell or the smell of space?

Well, as I’ve recently learned, more than one person has discussed the smell of space. Don Pettit, an Officer on the International Space Station wrote this in an article for NASA,

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.

Another astronaut, Jerry Linenger, explained on Fresh Air,

And it’s a uh, tough — you know, any aroma is tough to describe, but it has a distinct smell, and it’s sort of a burned-out, uh, after-the-fire, the next-morning-in-your-fireplace sort of smell.

(Some have suggested that this is the smell of the space program, rather than the smell of space, but I have not found any evidence to support or discredit this explanation.)

Can you imagine the difference between a chocolate-chip cookie that you can smell and one that you can’t? Or what Vieux Boulogne would be like without its smell?

What if we could add the scent dimension to discussions of space? Wouldn’t it be great if when your teacher taught you about outer space she sprayed a can of “space-scented” air freshener around the room? This idea might not be too far out of reach. In 1998 the International Flavors and Fragrances, Inc. (IFF) sent a miniature rose called “Overnight Scentsation” into orbit on the ISS via the space shuttle Discover. They found that the scent of the rose dramatically changed in space – probably because of changes in oil production in the plant due to microgravity. They called this scent “space rose” and it was used to create the perfume Zen by

IFF had plans to repeat the experiment with two more flowers, but all that I can find on the experiment is the following press release dated February 3, 2003.

On behalf of all of us at IFF, I want to express my condolences to the families of the brave astronauts lost in the Space Shuttle Columbia on Saturday. While we are of course disappointed that our second space experiment ended in this way, I think you will agree that the tragic loss of seven human lives is what we should be thinking about at this time…

Richard A. Goldstein
Chairman and Chief Executive Officer

A sobering reminder that the unexpected does happen and that we should make the most of what we’ve got. Including our ability to smell.

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