George Aldrich has more nicknames than most. Some people call him the Chief Sniffer. Others have called him Nostrildamus, NASA Nose and Master Sniffer.
Aldrich prefers the term ‘nasalnaut’, because for several decades, he has been using his nose for the common good at NASA.
“I have been a Chemical Specialist at NASA for 44 years,” wrote Aldrich in a recent Reddit AMA about his unusual career. “I primarily do toxicity tests on objects before they go into space.”
“I am also a volunteer on NASA’s odour panel. 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.”
Yep, that’s right. That’s a real, legitimate task.
And it’s a lot more important than you would think, not just because of toxic fumes, but also, because… can you imagine being stuck on the cramped International Space Station with a terrible smell?
This is actually something that NASA thinks about before sending objects up into space. The process goes something like this: five volunteers on NASA’s odour panel smell each material, ranking it from 0 to 4, and if the smell exceeds a 2.5 rating, it fails the test.
“We don’t get to see what it looks like before I smell it. I’m going into it pretty much blind. They don’t want us to be persuaded. We’re not allowed to look at it after we have a smell,” wrote Aldrich.
Before undergoing the odour test, the volunteers on the panel are examined by a nurse to make sure that the sniffers are not sick or incapable of smelling to their best abilities.
The system works pretty well, too. But sometimes, smelly materials can slip through the cracks. Then, it quickly becomes clear why the noses of volunteers on the odour panel are so important.
“Velcro straps, we tested them, and they stunk to high heaven,” wrote Aldrich about one such occasion.
“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.”
NASA’s odour panel was created after 27 January 1967, when the very first launch simulation for the Apollo-Saturn mission went terribly wrong. In a devastating accident, a flash fire engulfed the spacecraft prototype, killing three astronauts.
The tragedy shook the nation, and in order to stop it from happening again, NASA went back to the drawing board.
As part of the redesign, the space agency decided to do some thorough material testing. Test number one was flammability. Test number six? Odour.
Now, this testing is used for new materials that are going into space, and that includes spacewalk suits and EV suits for astronauts.
A nose is a nose is a nose, but Aldrich’s nose knows what’s up. All in all, he has conducted over 800 smell missions for NASA throughout his career.
For his dedicated service, he has been the proud recipient of the space agency’s Silver Snoopy Sniffer Award, which was designed by astronauts as an award for excellence in safety. The prize even got a tick of approval from Snoopy’s original creator.
“While Charles Schulz was still alive, NASA wanted somebody like Smokey Bear, a symbol of safety and excellence,” wrote Aldrich on the AMA.
“Charles Schulz was a big space buff so they asked if they could use Snoopy as their symbol, and he said, ‘sure I’d be honored.’ They put a little space helmet on him and a little oxygen pack.”
As impressive as Aldrich’s nose is, he didn’t start this type of work because of a superhuman sense of smell. He says it’s something that he just kind of fell into.
“I lucked into the position actually. My dad worked out there and I never thought I was qualified,” he wrote on the AMA.
Aldrich had just graduated from high school, and even still, he was one of the 5 or 6 people who got a job “sniffing” at the local fire department.
It was here that he met the fire chief – one of the few people who got up to 600 sniffs in their career (a worthy milestone to be sure). The chief was the one who tipped Aldrich off about NASA’s program.
Aldrich explained how this came about on Reddit:
He said, “George you’re 18, you’re young, join this odor panel for the astronauts. I started up in 1974. You don’t have to work in the labs to be part of the odor panel, but when the chemistry lab was looking for a technician, I said, “I have two years of high school chemistry and four years of mathematics.” They said I qualified and they would train me. In 1978, I went began as a C tech to a B tech and then to an A tech; now I’m the highest, a specialist.
Still, even as a specialist, there’s one thing that goes into space that Aldrich doesn’t bother smelling.
“Humans beings stink and there’s not too much we can do about it,” Aldrich wrote.
“There’s flatulence, they’ve got to potty, they can stink up the place. They do try to keep themselves clean with antibacterial agents. Because of anti-gravity, they can’t take a full-fledged shower because of the water. Humans stink, haha, there’s nothing we can do about it.”