In space, so the Alien tagline goes, nobody can hear you scream. One of the most memorable pieces of movie promotion ever, it refers to the effect of the vacuum of space on the things human senses require an atmosphere to experience. It’s a lesson that Joss Whedon used to great effect with the Serenity‘s silent engine light-ups in Firefly, while Star Wars ignored it completely to give us improbable weapon noises in space battles.

Sound may not pass through the vacuum of space, but that’s not to say there are not things other than light for the senses. The Apollo astronauts reported that moon dust released a smell they described as akin to burnt gunpowder once it was exposed to the atmosphere inside their lander, and by now you may have heard that there is a Kickstarter that aims to recreate the smell as a fragrance. Will it replace the cloying wall of Axe or Lynx Africa body spray that pervades high-school boys’ changing rooms, or is it a mere novelty?

The Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan, liberally coated with moon dust after returning to the Lunar module. NASA / Public Domain

Smells Like Moon Dust

The gunpowder smell experienced by the Apollo crews is likely to have been caused by oxygen-sensitive compounds in the moon dust being oxidised by their first exposure to an atmosphere after having accumulated through billions of years of our satellite’s buffeting by solar winds. By the time the samples reached Earth-based scientists this process was long over, so no smell remains for analysis. Even the vacuum containers in which the astronauts were to catch a sample for return to earth without being compromised by a vacuum failed to stop it, it’s thought that their seals were compromised by the unexpectedly pervasive nature of the dust. Thus the “Eau de Luna” perfume will be a creation based only on the astronauts’ recollections rather than an analysis of the smell they experienced.

Like a Locker Room in Orbit

Moon dust may so far be our species’ only encounter with another heavenly body, but that isn’t to say that space is not without other smells. The NASA astronaut Jerry Linenger described “a distinct, burnt-dry smell“in the airlocks of the Soviet/Russian Mir space station after returning from space, which is probably analogous to the Moon smell. But numerous accounts from the residents of Mir and other stations talk of smells from a completely different source; the astronauts themselves.

In a space station it is impossible to open a window for a bit of extra ventilation, so as the early stations gave way to continuously-crewed modular outposts that stayed aloft for many years their atmospheres reflected the accumulated biome of all that had been brought to them by their crews. Mir was said to be infested with mould and fungus towards the end of its life, and in 2019 there was concern that the same fate was befalling the ISS. It’s said that the fluid displacement effect of weightlessness adversely affects the human sense of smell, which is perhaps fortunate for those who have to live with it.

So the space fragrance probably remains the closest that most of us will ever come to leaving the atmosphere, thus it could smell of anything at all and none of us would ever smell the real thing and be able to ask for a refund if it didn’t match. Does it matter though, for the hacker who doesn’t quite have everything? No doubt we’ll catch that open-airlock scent at one or other of next year’s events.

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