I felt a deep cosmic connection to our origin as I gazed into the night sky from a remote mesa near Hopi Ancestral Villages. From raw scenic vistas of rock and sandstone, I saw petroglyphs made thousands of years ago, heard ancient prophecies from the Elders, and smelled clean air mingling with sun-cooked dust. Surrounded by an unobstructed view of a star heavy sky, my inner most thoughts came to rest on big questions that led me to the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope at the Kennedy Space Center in April of 1990.
Aboard the space shuttle Discovery was one woman — geologist, astronaut and mission specialist charged with deploying the telescope — Dr. Kathryn Sullivan. She joined the astronaut corps in 1978 as one of six first women selected to join NASA. Now, she serves as the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere and as the administrator of NOAA. I recently had the opportunity to talk to the former astronaut about the effects of space on the senses, particularly smell and taste.
Former astronauts describe the smell of space as metallic with a hint of seared meat, similar to gunpowder or welding fumes. A former astronaut, Don Pettit, described the smell of space as “a rather pleasant sweet metallic sensation. It reminded me of my college summers where I labored for many hours with an arc welding torch repairing heavy equipment for a small logging outfit.” I imagine this smell must be especially pungent as Sullivan told me, “Taste and smell get very dull. Fluid in the body heads up in a zero-gravity environment and you retain fluid in your face and head. Tabasco or other hot sauces become your friend. You want something spicy. You can’t sprinkle salt and pepper while up there so you have salt and pepper solutions.”
She refers to what many scientists and astronauts call “the Charlie Brown Effect”: the head becomes round and bloated due to the excess cerebrospinal fluid. This micro-gravity environment affects all the senses.
In 2009, on a six-month stay on board the International Space Station, astronaut-physicians Dr. Michael Barratt (American) and Dr. Robert Thirsk (Canadian) experienced vision problems. Each examined the other and found that the swelling in the head squeezed the eyeballs and optic nerves, which had shifted their vision towards farsightedness.
Not much is known about the long-term effects of prolonged stays in space. Studies on the matter are coming out more and more. However, previous research has shown that reduction of the sense of smell leads to greater risks of depression, an added problem for manned space missions.
Despite our remarkable evolutionary progress as a species and our capacity to technologically see far into the frontiers of space, our bodies evolved over millennia within the gravity of earth and need to experience the weight. For now, our bodies have trouble going where our minds have sent the probes.
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