He flies through the air with the greatest of ease
goes the daring young man, without his trapeze
Drifting around, unconstrained by his girth
free of the weight he acquired by birth
A place where you won’t be skinning your knee
where the biggest problem is “How does one pee?”
(it is best to avoid preflight coffee or tea)
Like flying in dreams, which you know can’t be
yet it’s real as life, in the absence of g
A vacuum is a condition that is nearly devoid of molecules, and space is a molecular desert that makes the Empty Quarter of the Saudi Arabian peninsula seem like an oasis in comparison. But the space vacuum still has some molecules—residue from galactic processes, solar wind or atomic detritus spalled off from our atmosphere. And molecules, typically floating in the surrounding air, can be sensed via smell.
To talk about the smell of space makes no sense at all. Even if we had space-adapted noses, there is no air to transport the trace molecules. However, space does have a definite smell, and we can smell it in a roundabout way.
I have had the pleasure of operating our space station airlock for many crewmates while they went on spacewalks. Each time, when I repressurized the airlock, opened the hatch, and greeted my tired returning friends, a peculiar essence drifting about the newly repressurized chamber tickled my olfactory senses. I noticed that the smell was coming from the spacesuit fabric, the tools, and any other equipment that had been brought inside. It was more pronounced on fabrics than on metal or plastic surfaces. It most definitely did not come from the air lines that pressurized the chamber.
That’s me with John Herrington in the Quest Airlock during the STS-113 Endeavour mission to the International Space Station in 2002.
At first I couldn’t quite place the smell. The best description I can come up with is that it’s rather pleasantly metallic. It brought me back to my college summers, when I used an arc welding torch to repair heavy equipment for a small logging outfit. It reminded me of sweet-smelling welding fumes. To me this is the smell of space.
Reptiles have smell sensors located not within their nasal passage, but on the roof of their mouth. They smell by waving their moist tongue in the air, then pressing it against the roof of their mouth, thus indirectly transferring molecules from the air to the olfactory sensors. It occurred to me that I was smelling the essence of space through an indirect transfer, in a manner not unlike that of our lizard friends.
For my Soyuz launch, I had worn a standard Shuttle diaper with two inserts for extra absorption. (I have found it advantageous to add a little extra in certain places—in weightlessness, urine will creep around under the guise of capillary action and find your long underwear.)
Still, we were in our spacesuits for over 12 hours, and that’s a long time. Even with the extra inserts, my diaper became completely overwhelmed. It leaked real bad; I could feel it happen, and was powerless to control the flood. When the time came to de-suit, I was more than ready to get out of that thing, but dreaded the impending mess. Fortunately, I was able to cover up my stained underwear with a pair of woolen bib overalls.
On docking day, we put on our Sokol suits again and strapped in about six hours before arriving at Space Station. By the time we docked I was tired, dehydrated, hungry, had to use the bathroom, and was still wearing my yellow-stained long underwear. My sinuses were a bit congested, with the standard red puffy, chipmunk face. Our Soyuz cabin pressure was at 830 mm, but station is maintained at 740 mm. When we equalized the two, I got a splitting sinus headache.
Let your smile be your umbrella!
When we opened the hatch we were immediately on camera, downlinked live to the world as we were greeted by the smiling faces of our space station crewmates. All I wanted to do was have a good “rest stop,” get something to drink, and hide in my sleep station (in that order). We were pulled into the Service Module, where we were once again on camera with Russian Mission Control and my family, all anxious to chat. They wanted to know what it was like. I felt like a red-faced, dehydrated, puffy sack of — (fill in the blank). That is what it was really like. I was able to force a smile.