What Does Space Smell Like? Some Say Steak, Some Say Metal

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An astronaut takes a last look at Earth before entering orbit around the moon.

Simply put, space stinks. We aren’t quite sure like what, but we do know that the smell isn’t so pretty. Indeed, it’s so peculiar to astronauts that NASA wants to try and mimic it so that would-be space walkers know what they’re getting themselves — and their noses — into.

Without a strong sample size of folks who have undergone a space walk, they’ve found it rather tough to pinpoint the smell, with some former astronauts having called the odor akin to “seared steak,” “hot metal,” “welding fumes” or even “gunpowder.” Now, NASA has enlisted the help of London chemist Steve Pearce — pro bono, mind you — to recreate the smell, hoping it will help in training exercises.

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Pearce isn’t totally foreign to space smells, even though he’s never ventured there himself. He recently recreated the lingering smell of the Mir space station, a concoction of “sweaty feet and stale body odor, mix that odor with nail polish remover and gasoline… then you get close!” he told Discovery. Add in a touch of vodka — because, after all, they were Russian astronauts aboard Mir — to that, and the end result, he says was simply “horrible.”

“It certainly conveyed the sense that it wouldn’t have been nice to be trapped in Mir for too long,” he says. But that smell is only within the comfy confines of the space station. What are astronauts breathing in when they step out into that final frontier. Finding the smell of space may prove a bit tougher.

Mixing anecdotal discoveries together — Pearce says that seared steak and hot metal actually fall in line with each other and “lead us to conclude that the sensation is caused by some high-energy vibrations in particles brought back inside which mix with the air” — with the recent discovery of ethyl formate in space’s dust particles (that’s the same matter that gives raspberries their flavor), and there’s a strong starting point for recreating the possibly sulfurous-like smell of space.

Between the food options, tight quarters and smelly sensations, the life of an astronaut looks less and less glamorous.

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