Smelling The Moon

Press me! Press me!- the button's siren song. Drahl/C&EN

Many a space-obsessed kid has dreamed of rocketing off to the moon, seeing Earth from the moon, perhaps even touching the lunar surface. But smelling the moon? That’s less likely to be on the to-do list. Still, the folks who designed the American Museum of Natural History’s “Beyond Planet Earth” exhibit are betting that moon fans will at least be curious.

The exhibit hall is dimly lit, perhaps for dramatic effect. A walk through it leads to a simple slab display labeled “Smell the Moon,” placed amid a Soviet space helmet and a Sputnik replica. A button on the display glows temptingly as a recording of John F. Kennedy’s historic moon speech crackles in the background. “Push and sniff to smell the Moon,” the button beckons. They should’ve made it red.

After giving in to temptation and pressing the button, I was rewarded with a puff of “moon air.” Apollo astronauts who tracked moondust inside their cabins have said the stuff smells like gunpowder. Never having handled a firearm, I can’t confirm this. But as Gizmodo’s reporter noted, the experience left a distinctly metallic taste in my mouth.

According to this NASA article on moon aroma, gunpowder and moondust are chemically quite distinct. Today’s gunpowder is made from small organic molecules– nitrocellulose and nitroglycerin. But the moon’s surface is made of compounds all sharing the common thread of silicon, including silicon dioxide and silicate minerals like olivine and pyroxene. As for why the common scent, that’s still something for researchers to figure out.

Author: Carmen Drahl

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  1. “Taste it—”not half bad,” according to Apollo 16 astronaut John Young.” – from The Mysterious Smell of Moondust. This is one thing that future astronauts should not do, unless the want to be an item in The Safety Zone.

  2. Touché, qvxb. Though in Young’s defense, there were probably a few chemistry holdouts at that time who were “tasters”, as I like to call them.