Saturday, August 15, 2009

The smell of space

Reading Volume 1 of Ray Bradbury's short stories at the moment. A mixed bag in some ways - much that is not science fiction, and much that is clearly written to pay the rent.

And from the opened case spilled his black uniform, like a black nebula, stars glittering here or there, distantly, in the material. I kneaded the dark stuff in my warm hands; I smelled the planet Mars, an iron smell, and the planet Venus, a green ivy smell, and the planet Mercury, a scent of sulphur and fire: and I could smell the milky Moon and the hardness of the stars.

Annoyingly, the volume does not provide original publication dates for the stories, but this is clearly written in the time when it was thought that Venus was tropical and may support life.


  1. The Rocket Man is from 1951 - I always check out the Internet Speculative Fiction Database for these questions:

  2. Thanks, Steve - checking on the web would have been the obvious and smart thing to do - but it didn't occur to me!

    1951 figures. Gender relations very much of the time in these stories - might have to write about that later.

  3. And I'm interested in this quote as it relates to earlier thoughts on how space engages the senses. This episode takes place on Earth, where the son opens his father's case after he has returned from a journey.

  4. Richard12:39 pm

    Apprently both the Moon and space itself smell 'burned'. Neil Armstrong likened the smell of moon dust to 'wet ashes in a fireplace', while Buzz Aldrin and others described it as being similar to spent gunpowder. Airlocks/EVA hatches that have been exposed to the actual vacuum of space smell like 'burned almond cookies' according to Anousheh Ansari, who travelled to the ISS; astronaut Jerry Linenger reported a 'burned out, after-the-fire smell' in equivalent areas on Mir. (Of course in Linenger's case they actually DID have a fire to contend with. ;) )

  5. Curiouser and curiouser! How did you find all this out, Richard? (Sounds like something you might have been thinking about for a while). Makes me wonder if one could isolate the composition of the smells and make perfume or wine ...

  6. Richard10:54 am

    Those remarks can be found in various astronaut biographies and space books (e.g. James Hansen's 'First Man') and in interviews published online: I don't think I have room here to cite all the books or websites but a few minutes on Google should bear fruit.

    Try these for starters:

    On further reading, I notice other adjectives like 'bitter' and 'metallic'; the odour seems to be as complex as a fine wine.

    Those involved seem sure that it isn't the odour of their spacecraft and/or its electrical systems that they're smelling.

    What I find interesting are the various similies used, presumably drawn from personal experience:

    - the Apollo astronauts, almost all military men, were reminded of gunpowder;

    - Armstrong lived in a hillside shack without electricity (true!) during his time as a test pilot - is this why a 'fireplace' came to mind?

    - Don Pettit, a civilian chemical engineer, likened it to college lab practicals; and

    - Ansari, although a civilian electrical engineer and corporate figure, used a domestic/baking analogy.

  7. Thanks, Richard, this is so interesting!