Space smells like seared steak, hot metal, astronauts report

Astronauts who have gone on spacewalks consistently speak of space’s extraordinarily peculiar odor.

They can’t smell it while they’re actually bobbing in it, because the interiors of their space suits just smell plastic-y. But upon stepping back into the space station and removing their helmets, they get a strong, distinctive whiff of the final frontier. The odor clings to their suit, helmet, gloves and tools.

Fugitives from the near-vacuum — probably atomic oxygen, among other things — the clinging particles have the acrid aroma of seared steak, hot metal and welding fumes. Steven Pearce, a chemist hired by NASA to recreate the space odor on Earth for astronaut training purposes, said the metallic aspect of the scent may come from high-energy vibrations of ions.

“It’s like something I haven’t ever smelled before, but I’ll never forget it,” NASA astronaut Kevin Ford said from orbit in 2009. [Space Sights and Smells Surprise Rookie Astronauts]

But astronauts don’t dislike the sharp smell of space, necessarily. After a 2003 mission, astronaut Don Pettit described it this way on a NASA blog:

“It is hard to describe this smell; it is definitely not the olfactory equivalent to describing the palette sensations.

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