Not all superheroes wear capes. Or, at NASA, space suits. Meet one of the agency’s “Nasalnauts” – he may never leave the ground but he is vital in preparing anything that does.
George Aldrich, a chemical specialist at NASA for over 40 years, recently held an AMA – Ask Me Anything – on Reddit revealing his unusual but integral side job at the agency. He is a volunteer on NASA’s odor panel. Er, its what?
“We test the smells of all items that will be within the habitable areas of the International Space Station and check for disagreeable or offensive smells [that] may nauseate astronauts and possibly put astronauts' productivity and mission at risk," Aldrich, who has 851 smell missions under his belt, explained in the AMA.
Of course, the questions came thick and fast. How does one qualify for such a specialist role, why did NASA decide it needed a panel dedicated to smell, and what is his official title?
When asked if NASA gave him the title “Chief Sniffer”, Aldrich admitted he came up with the name “Nasalnaut” as he “wanted something cute”, but he has been referred to as “Master Sniffer”, “the NASA Nose”, and even “Nostrildamas”.
The panel, however, is no joke. It’s not just the danger of toxic fumes or leaking gas in an enclosed space, an unpleasant smell isn’t just unpleasant on the ISS – if there’s nowhere to escape it, it can become unbearable.
So what actually happens? After being thoroughly checked over to ensure their olfactory senses are in tip-top condition, five volunteer experts do a blind smell test of each material (so as not to be swayed by an item’s importance), ranking it from 0 to 4. Anything over 2.5 fails the test, and won’t get sent to space.
Some surprising items have failed the test over the years. "Velcro straps, we tested them, and they stunk to high heaven," Aldrich shared.
"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."
The smell test actually came about after the fatal 1967 Apollo-Saturn mission, when a fire broke out in the spacecraft during a launch rehearsal, killing three astronauts. Afterward, NASA put in place a series of checks for all materials to go onboard, starting with #1 flammability, going up to #6 odor and #7 toxicity.
Though Aldrich is quite humble about his skill, saying he “fell into” the role, he has been featured on Stan Lee’s Superhumans documentary series for his remarkable ability, and been the recipient of NASA’s Silver Snoopy Award. A rare honor indeed, it’s the astronauts’ own award for outstanding performance contributing to flight safety and mission success. Fewer than 1 percent of the entire aerospace program workforce receive it annually, so that’s not to be sniffed at.