For the last 44 years, George Aldrich has served as a chief sniffer in NASA. This is perhaps not a post that comes to mind when one is talking about NASA. Aldrich hosted a Reddit Ask Me Anything (AMA) in partnership with Inverse, and Reddit users asked him some fascinating questions during the session. The sniffer explained his job and its reasons for existing to the people. He said that he often conduct sessions for younger students and shows them his chemical specialist training skills.
The job is formal like other jobs in NASA; however, Aldrich said that he keeps the names and puns about his job fun. He said, “I came up with “nasalnaut,” I wanted something cute.” The others have come from articles. One called me the “chief sniffer.” In Scientific American, the guy called the Nostrildamus. Even “I Need My Space” called me the NASA Nose. I even received the Silver Snoopy Sniffer award. I got a plaque with that on it.”
The main question that was on the mind of the people was that “Why does NASA sniff objects in the first place?” Aldrich said that the odor test was put into place during the manual testing phase of the Apollo mission in 1967. Most of the tests came after the failed Apollo I mission that burned up. “[After the death of three astronauts,] NASA went back and decided to do material testing, especially in 100 percent oxygen environments. Test #1 in NASA language is flammability. Test #6 was the odor. They didn’t want the astronauts to be interfered with by an obnoxious odor. Test #7 is toxicity. All this was decided after the Apollo fire in 1967.”
Odd smells are the first indicator that there is something wrong in the environment. Bad smells are not just an irritation. They can help humans realize something terrible is happening. Certain smells can cause headaches, congestion, nausea, and drowsiness. Astronauts who are living and working in confined spaces don’t need to be exposed to potentially harmful odors during their work. Aldrich said that everything has a smell and his job includes to make those smells as nonexistent as possible. He explained that anyone who is spending time in an environment would start ignoring the scent and become prone to it.
He said, “You can get what you call “olfactory fatigue,” where if you’ve been in an environment for a while and you don’t smell the substance after 5 hours. It could be dangerous. Once the new astronauts get up to the ISS, they say, “Oh, what’s that smell?” And the astronauts who have been on the ISS can’t smell it.” Smelling things to make a living takes its toll on the senses of the people. Aldrich explained there are safeguards in place to ensure that his nose stays in tip-top shape. He said, “We have an on-site nurse that comes up and checks our nose and throat before we go in and smell, so if we have a preexisting condition and it’s interfering — redness in our nose or a raw throat, the nurse is going to say, “sorry.” I’ve been tested more than 900 times; I think I failed twice.”
To identify the smell correctly, his team never sees the object before they smell it. “We don’t get to see what it looks like before I smell it. I’m going into it pretty much blind. They don’t want us to be persuaded. We’re not allowed to look at it after we have a smell. I had a weird case just recently, actually. It was material, and it was covered, but I don’t remember what it is — I’m not at work today — I go, “it shouldn’t smell like that,” and it smelled like butterscotch. This was a material that is going to into the suit; they are testing new materials that are going into the suit. They want to test everything for toxicity and odor in the new EV suits, the spacewalk suits.” The NASA sniffers rate the smell on a scale from 0 to 4, while 0 being a lack of odor and four being extremely pungent.
He further added, “We have five people smell each material. If it has more than a 2.5 rating, it fails. We only tell the customer it’s over the rating. They have numerous options to reduce the odor. There’s always going to be a little bit, but pleasant or slightly unpleasant, as long it’s not over the rating. However, failing the odor test doesn’t mean the object fails its chances of going into space entirely.” Failing to identify the odor doesn’t mean that the object has lost its chances of going into space. The 44 years in the job, Aldrich has smelled some of the very interesting and rancid odors. Human astronaut stench was not the worst that he smelled. He said, “Well, haha. Here’s my standard answer: Humans beings stink, and there’s not too much we can do about it. There’s flatulence, they’ve got to potty, they can stink up the place. They do try to keep themselves clean with antibacterial agents. Because of anti-gravity, they can’t take a full-fledged shower because of the water. Humans stink, haha, there’s nothing we can do about it.”
Aldrich and the team had to suffer through two particular smells that made the astronauts go desperate for a window. Aldrich recalled, “That was a refrigerator that flew to space; it failed. Luckily, the astronauts were coming in on the shuttle in the shuttle days. The astronauts got sick. They double-bagged it as soon as it landed. They brought it to White Sands Test Facility to do a toxicity test, and it had benzene, a known carcinogen. The concentration was low enough, and we were all called in and said we don’t have to do this; it was less benzene than would smell to you fill up your car with gasoline. It failed electrically, so that’s what it smelled like. It stayed in your nose.”
NASA sends up potentially offensive smells assuming that the odors will fade off. Another disgusting item that Aldrich recalled was the situation where the opposite had happened. He said, “Velcro straps, we tested them, and they stunk to high heaven. They tested the components separately, and when they slapped them together, they assumed they would pass the toxicity and odor test. When they got to space, one of the astronauts opened the velcro, and they stunk the place up. On a scale of 0-4, one was 3.6 and the other 3.8. Objectionable and revolting.” When asked by a Redditor about his favorite odor, he said, “Odor-free is fine by me.”