The Scent of Moondust
By James Grahame
Have you ever wondered what things smell like in space? I once concluded that a spaceship would smell something like a well-sealed dorm room -- a combination of sweaty socks, warm electronics and a hint of week-old pizza. It turns out I wasn't far wrong. Space traveler Anousheh Ansari recently reported: "As they pulled the hatch [to the ISS] open on the Soyuz side, I smelled SPACE. It was strange… kind of like burned almond cookie."
Things get even weirder on the moon. Almost 34 years ago, Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan succinctly summed up the scent of moondust: "It smells like spent gunpowder." It turns out that the incredibly fine dust on the surface of the moon has a propensity to stick to everything. No matter how careful the returning astronauts were, they inevitably tracked it into their lunar module and smudged it everywhere. As soon as their helmets were off, the scent of moondust permeated the ship.
Interestingly enough, the only way to smell "the real stuff" is to take a trip to the moon. On Earth, moondust loses its distinctive fragrance:
There are hundreds of pounds of moondust at the Lunar Sample Lab in Houston. There, [NASA researcher Gary] Lofgren has held dusty moon rocks with his own hands. He's sniffed the rocks, sniffed the air, sniffed his hands. "It does not smell like gunpowder," he says.
Were the Apollo crews imagining things? No. Lofgren and others have a better explanation: Moondust on Earth has been 'pacified.' All of the samples brought back by Apollo astronauts have been in contact with moist, oxygen-rich air. Any smelly chemical reactions (or evaporations) ended long ago.