(but outer space doesn’t smell like Ipswich)
It’s hard to tell what– if anything– ever came of it, but I stumbled across a late 2008 interview with olfactory chemist Steve Pearce about a request from NASA to artificially recreate the smell of space, so as to increase the realism of their astronaut training and simulation.
“When astronauts come in from a spacewalk and remove their helmets, they’ve reported smells of “seared steak,” “hot metal” and “arc welding on their motorbike.” These are all consistent descriptions, not flukes. That lead us to conclude that the sensation is caused by some high-energy vibrations in particles brought back inside which mix with the air. And that product is then presented to the astronaut as they breathe it in. Why NASA wants it? If we can reproduce that odor, it would be useful in adding realism to the training here on Earth.”
Since I’m from Suffolk, I was tickled by the additional little detail that this NASA-sanctioned research into sniffing space was taking place in Ipswich. For those in the vanishingly small demographic of people who don’t know and actually care, Ipswich is a fairly large town with very small ambitions in the eastern part of England, to the north of London. There are some nice things about it, but most visitors are perhaps understandably wont to comment upon its grave errors of urban planning, disastrous transportation, woeful infrastructure, its general state of dilapidation, its filthy knocking shops and its charming contingent of drug addicts and/or aggressively, wilfully and permanently unemployed people, and last but not least its distressingly large population of individuals who should be under proper psychiatric care and on their meds but are evidently not receiving any type of care whatsoever. Ipswich’s main claim to fame in recent years was having its very own serial killer of prostitutes. Technically Pearce’s company is based on an industrial estate north of Ipswich, but it’s still adjacent to one of of Suffolk’s picturesque landfill sites, just in case you were starting to have visions of John Constable’s and Thomas Gainsborough’s paintings which are unbelievably of the same general area. There’s progress for you.
In the absence of any further updates, I’m going to imagine the guy still toiling away in Ipswich to this very day, trying to perfect his mixture of carbonised meat and arc welding like a benign, spacey version of the nutter in Perfume (the novel by Patrick Süskind, not the J-Pop band).
Another valuable nugget I extracted from the interview is that the interior of the Mir space station apparently smells like “sweaty feet and stale body odor… with nail polish remover and gasoline”; anyone who’s been to Ipswich or seen the kinds of people who live there would probably expect Ipswich to smell like this and not like outer space. Certainly there’s a touch of the godforsaken Soviet backwater about Ipswich. The acetone-like smells were the result of the cosmonauts constantly and compulsively drinking smuggled vodka. Also like Ipswich.
What I really loved was a passing mention of this 2008 exhibition at Reg Vardy gallery in Sunderland. If there ever was: an exhibition of extinct and impossible smells consisted solely of brief explanatory texts and the smells of– among other things– extinct flowers, the surface of the sun, and the atomic blast at Hiroshima. It’s worth downloading the PDF from that page for the superficially rational details of this insane project. Obviously some suspension of disbelief is required, since you couldn’t smell the sun or an exploding atom bomb without being annihilated, any more than you could smell space directly without dying. The sun would apparently smell of a “molten cocktail of copper, terbium, strontium, antimony, and europium.” It’s that hot metal thing again. Hiroshima is coal, bones and most intriguingly of all the burning rubber that survivors smelled even before the odour of the blast could have reached them; this was probably due to gamma rays irradiating and activating smell receptors in their noses.
Cleopatra wore “kyphi, an aromatic blend including juniper, raisins, cassia and pine kernels.” The Mir smell was in the exhibition, with the amusing note that “with the scientists unable to open a window or stop drinking, Mir continued to stink until it was decommissioned and disintegrated in the upper atmosphere over Fiji on March 23, 2001.” A 14th century nosegay against the Black Death smells of rose, beeswax, angelica, orange peel, clove, thyme, lilies and smoke.
Not in the exhibition or available as a fragrance (yet), but related: the Sagittarius B2 cloud is 150 light years wide, 390 light years from the centre of our galaxy and it’s full of ethyl formate. Ethyl formate smells like rum and contributes to the taste of raspberries. And lo, this revelation begat jokey articles, lame gags, and silly Photoshops without number.