Tech UPTechnologyGeorge Aldrich:

George Aldrich:

George Aldrich is the hound of space. He is hired by NASA and must smell each of the objects that have to go up into space and approve or disapprove of them according to their aroma. The process, which the US space agency has carried out for 34 years with the Apollo missions, is an effort to prevent very unpleasant odors from causing the crew to run to open a window 400 kilometers above Earth. Under Aldrich’s nose they have gone from cosmetics and tampons, to velcro strips, food bags, socks, golf balls, paints, resins, electronic circuit consoles, fabrics of all kinds, markers, inks, shaving creams, sneakers tennis shoes, adult diapers, a guitar, toy bears and dinosaurs.

“During space travel, objects undergo changes in temperature, which affects their smell,” says Aldrich, who works as a laboratory technician at the White Sands Test Facility in Las Cruces, New Mexico, where NASA conducts material resistance and chemistry tests. “If you leave a new car parked in the street under the shade of the trees, when you return you will notice that it smells a little. But if you leave it in the sun, at more than 35 degrees Celsius and with the windows closed, the smell can arrive to be quite strong, because the process of degassing the material has accelerated. Then you simply open the window. But in space that is not possible, “he explains.

Recently, during one of the trips to the International Space Station, the shuttle carried a bag of velcro strips to tie objects. “There was no time to do the scent test,” says Aldrich. When one of the astronauts opened the bag, the contents gave off such a strong odor that he had to seal them until he returned to Earth. Once here I could see that it was the worst that my noses have ever experienced. Another similar case occurred during a shuttle flight: a new refrigerator that was not previously sniffed either ended up “smelling like hell and leaving a bitter taste in my throat for hours.”

SoAldrich Loans His Sensitive Organ To NASA During Several Weekly Olfactory Missionsto judge, along with three other colleagues from a team of sniffers, which objects can climb aboard the space shuttle or which cannot because they would cause the crew to collapse. Of the total of 25 NASA employees who help sniff – regardless of their jobs as engineers or secretaries within the space agency – Aldrich is the oldest. Since he began using his nose professionally 27 years ago, he has participated in 745 olfactory missions, one hundred more than any other sniffer at White Sands.

Before anything goes under the nose of the judging team, the object or material in question is subjected to a toxicity test that completely rules out what may be carcinogenic. The object is then placed in a hermetically sealed container and subjected to a heat of more than 50 degrees for 72 hours. It is then that thehuman hounds. The sample should be judged according to four degrees from zero to four: “Zero is not detectable, one is barely detectable, three is quite annoying, and four is downright nauseating.”

Now, why doesn’t NASA use electronic dogs or noses? “First,” says Aldrich, “because dogs cannot speak and that prevents them from explaining what this or that smells like to them. And if they could, they would certainly not qualify the samples properly. On the other hand, experiments have been done. with electronic devices that are good at reading humidity and temperature conditions, but none can yet replace the human nose. “

To ensure its effectiveness, NASA regularly calibrates the noses of its volunteers by giving them an exam in which they must smell and decipher the contents of various bottles with very subtle aromas, something like a recognition of the capacity for noses.

As if smelling things all the time weren’t enough, Aldrich is judging a bizarre annual contest called The Odor Eaters Rotten Sneaker Contest, in which a company that makes deodorant products for the feet chooses the most outrageously smelly tennis shoe in the United States. United. “This year an 11-year-old girl who hadn’t taken her shoes off in three months won,” he says. “It almost reached the level of the velcro straps and the space cooler.”

Shoes aside, Aldrich believes that other space agencies – outside of the Japanese, which already does – should have a system similar to NASA’s to safeguard the well-being of the crews. “After what happened in Russia, you would think they have some kind of olfactory test but, to my knowledge, they don’t. With the money and work invested in a mission, there is no point in allowing everything to be ruined by a bad smell. . “

For now, in New Mexico all kinds of objects continue to reveal their most intimate aromas to George Aldrich, in a single line that begins in engineering and electronics laboratories and even in the homes of astronauts, ending at the doors of the shuttle. Perhaps the next inhabitants of the International Space Station should pray that “NASA’s main snooper”, as it is read on his business card, does not get a cold before launch

Angela Swafford

This interview was published in September 2001, in number 244 of VERY Interesting.

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