One Giant Whiff for Mankind

hopkins iss
Astronaut Mike Hopkins on board the ISS.

After recently returning from spending 166 days on board the International Space Station, Astronaut Mike Hopkins commented on a phenomenon that’s been reported by many other astronauts – that space itself has a smell. Hopkins said that it’s a metallic, ionization-type smell that he found quite unique and distinctive.

How cool is that? Who would have thought that space had a smell? While I was pondering this spacey-smell thing, it reminded me of something else that had a smell to it that I discovered years ago.

Back in the late-80’s, I left the frozen Wisconsin tundra and moved to sunny Arizona. We lived in a suburb of Phoenix where it never dared snow. After a few months of noticing a strange odor Astronaut snow2here and there during the winter, someone put two-and-two together for me and told me that the acrid, metallic smell meant it was snowing up in the mountains just an hour or so north of us. Of course I didn’t believe such a ridiculous notion because I was a snow expert from Wisconsin. But eventually I discovered that every time I noticed that smell and turned on, it was always snowing just north of us.

Although it was common knowledge in Arizona, I can’t smell it here in Wisconsin when the snow is close or actually falling on us. Don’t know why that is. However, I’ve read that there are plenty of people in the Northwest who claim to smell snow when it’s close by (and also plenty of scientists who claim that there’s no scientific evidence that someone can smell snow).

Astronaut Don Pettit blogged on the NASA snow globewebsite that space has “a rather pleasant sweet metallic” smell that reminded him of welding fumes. That kind of sounds like the smell of snow, which I remember as an ionized, metallic smell (like the one you often notice right before it rains) with an undertone of something else like hot, dry metal. Here’s a link to a Popular Science article that gets into a lot more detail about the spacey odors.

Too bad I personally will never get to compare the two smells. Of course, if NASA calls and wants me to go up and do a comparison/contrast essay on the subject, I can pack in ten minutes!


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