For some jobs it's up to dogs to smell danger. At NASA it's up to George Aldrich to put his nose to work and sniff out any problems. He's in charge of 25 people who have to smell everything that goes into space. George tells New Scientist Magazine that smells change in space and once you're up there you're stuck with them. He works in the New Mexico desert and smells everything from sneakers to adult diapers.
Why He's Gotta Smell It All
Things smell different in space because of the confined space and the heat. "Think of a new car," explains George. "If you parked it in normal weather with the window open, that new car smell would be there in the background. But if you parked it in the sun on a sweltering day with the windows up, then the smell would be pretty overpowering. You'd be speeding up the evaporation of the chemicals."
George smells anything that goes inside a space shuttle. Here are a list of some of the things he's smelled: paints, magic markers, socks, shaving cream, tennis shoes, deodorized and non-deodorized tampons, adult diapers, a guitar and the case and toy animals like Chuckie Bear and Barney. FYI - astronauts wear diapers when they are out doing space walks and other circumstances where they just might need one. "We rejected some mascara from Sally Ride. She was the first American female astronaut and we tested a lot of things for her," says George.
Smell... I Mean Sound Appealing?
Does this job smell... I mean sound appealing? George explains how he became a NASA sniffer. "I never really thought much about whether I had a good sense of smell. I started with NASA in the fire department when I was 18. I was young and healthy and they asked me to be on their Odor Panel. I've now done 744 'smell missions' over 100 more than anyone else," explains George.
To get the job he had to pass a special physical. "You can't have any allergies or respiratory problems and they frown on high blood pressure. NASA wants healthy test subjects and if you have a lot of allergies your nasal passages are already irritated and cannot be used. And then you have to be able to smell. We have what we call the "10-bottle test": seven of them have odors and three of them are blanks. We have to certify our noses every three months like this."
Being a professional sniffer might make a few people chuckle but the job is very important. "For all the money it takes to get the shuttle off the ground, it's pointless if they have to abort the mission because of an odor inside the capsule," says George. "It is even more important because of the space station. The shuttle will be regularly supplying the astronauts up there with fresh supplies and taking away all their waste. I wouldn't be doing it if I didn't think it was important."
So what does George's business card say? "I call myself a nasal-naut. I've got a picture of the shuttle with the solid rocket boosters and my daughter has drawn a little skunk. Right in the middle it says: "If something smells in the space programme I'll be there to get wind of it."