Why Does NASA Have a “master Sniffer”?


NASA needs a few good noses. Astronauts can’t ventilate their spacecraft while in orbit, so it’s up to chief George Aldrich and his team of sniffers to make sure each object doesn’t give off an unpleasant smell. More importantly, they look for fumes that could be dangerous or deadly to astronauts in space.

Aldrich and his team test almost everything that goes into spaceflight: upholstery, electronic equipment, toothpaste, cleaning agents and much more. They heat samples to speed up their “off-gassing,” the process that releases fumes. These gasses are then tested by the team of expert sniffers, who average their collective findings to decide whether the object is safe for flight.

NASA sniffers’ noses are calibrated every four months using a “ten bottle test” in which seven bottles are identified according to their scent properties, and three are left as blank scents. While it’s costly and time consuming, it is better than any alternative, such as dogs or electronic sniffers. Humans can still better identify offensive smells to humans better than dogs or robots.

Aldrich has been a self-proclaimed “nasal-naut” at NASA for almost 40 years. He has completed over 700 “smell missions,” which is more than any other sniffer. In his spare time, he’s served as a judge for the annual Odor-Eaters Rotten Sneaker Competition – though most might not exactly call that a perk of the job.