You’ll never get to take a deep breath and smell the roses in Earth’s orbit. The distinct lack of air there means you’d die a gruesome death sans space helmet, probably without smelling a thing.
Ah, but what about once you get back in your ship? As many places around the Web have been discussing recently, astronauts have said that upon coming back from space walks and taking off their gear, a certain specific scent seems to hang in the air…some think it smells like charred steak, or maybe like something metallic.
Here’s how astronaut Don Pettit put it nearly ten years ago:
Each time, when I repressed the airlock, opened the hatch and welcomed two tired workers inside, a peculiar odor tickled my olfactory senses. At first I couldn’t quite place it. It must have come from the air ducts that re-pressed the compartment. Then I noticed that this smell was on their suit, helmet, gloves, and tools. It was more pronounced on fabrics than on metal or plastic surfaces. It is hard to describe this smell; it is definitely not the olfactory equivalent to describing the palette sensations of some new food as “tastes like chicken.” The best description I can come up with is metallic; a rather pleasant sweet metallic sensation. It reminded me of my college summers where I labored for many hours with an arc welding torch repairing heavy equipment for a small logging outfit. It reminded me of pleasant sweet smelling welding fumes. That is the smell of space.
What sounds like a similar smell—astronauts describe it as something like gunpowder—also emanates from moondust.
Airplane food is notoriously bad. But airlines, in financial free fall over the last decade, have been trying to bring back the luxe food of early flight in business class and first class, to lure in more high-end travelers. Biology is working against them, though. As Jad Mouawad reports for the NYTimes, part of why plane food lacks subtlety is that we can’t actually taste as well when we’re at altitude:
Even before a plane takes off, the atmosphere inside the cabin dries out the nose. As the plane ascends, the change in air pressure numbs about a third of the taste buds. And as the plane reaches a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet, cabin humidity levels are kept low by design, to reduce the risk of fuselage corrosion. Soon, the nose no longer knows. Taste buds are M.I.A. Cotton mouth sets in.
What’s the News: Mammals’ increased brain size may have come from long-ago natural selection for a better sense of smell, suggests a new study published today in Science. By reconstructing in 3D the skulls of two animals far back on the mammal family tree, the researchers saw that growth of smell-related brain regions accounted for much of the early increase in brain size as mammals developed.