In your home on Earth, if something smells bad all you have to do is open the windows to let in some fresh air. But on astronauts’ homes in space – whether it’s the ISS, on board a Soyuz TMA, or, one day, inside the Orion capsule – that luxury isn’t an option. All the air available for breathing must be included in the craft and constantly scrubbed for contaminants and recycled. And if there’s something on board that happens to have an obnoxious odor you’re stuck with it for the duration of the mission… which could have negative side effects on the performance of crew members, if it’s bad enough.
This is why NASA needs George Aldrich. A Chemical Specialist at the White Sands Test Facility in Las Cruces, New Mexico, George works in the Molecular Desorption and Analysis Laboratory and uses his uncanny sense of smell to help determine if objects and materials are safe to be sent along on space missions, both in terms of toxicity and stinkiness.
Because air in the Station is kept so clean and temperatures are relatively warm – about 22ºC, or 72ºF (source) – any introduced odors tend to be more pronounced and linger much longer than they would in a terrestrial environment. And with no way of easily “clearing the air,” mission crews could easily get stuck with unwanted, unnecessary smells for months on end which could be at best distracting, and at worst nausea-inducing. So for nearly 40 years “Master Sniffer” George Aldrich has been doing all the nosing around beforehand to make sure the air up there remains as smell-free as possible (especially considering there are already multiple people sharing confined spaces for long periods of time.)
It’s also important for Station crew members to be able to notice important smells if they have to, like any faint odors from potential fires or malfunctioning equipment.
The video above, a segment from Science Channel’s World’s Strangest, shows George at work at WSTF. I happened to catch it on TV last night and thought it was really interesting… it just shows that when it comes to spaceflight even the smallest precautions are important!