He describes himself as a “nasalnaut” – a human guinea pig with a highly sensitised nose whose mission is to ensure that NASA flights aren’t aborted because of noxious odours in space.
From his laboratory deep in the New Mexico desert, George Aldrich checks glue, pens, foam and spacesuits for the slightest toxic whiff before they are sent into space on manned missions.
While the countdown has started for Tuesday’s launch of Shuttle Discovery on STS-114, Aldrich also has a nose for a sweet smelling Return to Flight.
He first joined the smelling panel in 1974 – two years before the Soviets were forced to abandon a Soyuz mission because of an inexplicable odour on-board.
As Mr Aldrich, 49, observes:”You can’t open a window when you’re 200 miles above Earth”.
In his quest to eliminate any smell-related problem that might endanger astronauts’ lives or threaten space flights, “Nasa’s Nose” has sniffed everything from the mundane to the distinctly unusual, including cuddly toys and the adult nappies (officially, “disposal absorption containment trunks”) worn on spacewalks.
This week, even though Nasa’s brightest brains are still tackling the fuel-gauge glitch that has kept the shuttle Discovery on the launch-pad – it is due to blast-off on Tuesday – the agency’s keenest nose has already done his essential groundwork.
“We are constantly testing stuff that will be used in the Shuttle or the International Space Station,” said Mr Aldrich, who heads a small team of volunteer sniffers.
The Sunday Telegraph was granted rare access to his laboratory at the White Sands Test Facility, which was once home to the Apollo programme and is still designated for Shuttle landings.
The sprawling site is set amid desert shrub and cacti. In the laboratory, white clouds billow from a container of liquid nitrogen as workers in goggles note down the results of toxicity tests.
In the master sniffer’s lair, a small office, Mr Aldrich invited The Sunday Telegraph to take part in the 10-bottle blind smell test required to join the panel.
The volunteer sniffers must identify seven odours – ethereal, camphoraceous, musky, floral, minty, pungent and putrid – from 10 numbered bottles, three of which are odour-free “controls”.
Unstopping the “putrid” flask, Mr Aldrich releases a stench like rotting skunk that leaves the sniffer gulping for fresh air.
Elsewhere on this site, batteries of high-tech experiments are conducted but the olfactory experiments are defiantly low-tech. “Only a human can do this job,” Mr Aldrich declares proudly.
“Our astronauts are putting their lives on the line for this country and for mankind. We are taking a small risk for them. We’re like the food tasters for kings and emperors of previous times.”
The items to be tested are put in sealed lead containers and heated to 120F for three days in an oven the size of a room to replicate the hot conditions inside the capsule.
Once they have released gases and odours, they are tested for toxicity and carcinogens and then, if they are thought safe, for smell. The air is extracted in a syringe and injected into face masks worn by Mr Aldrich’s team of five volunteer sniffers.
On a scale of zero (non-detectable) to four (offensive) they have to rate the smell. An average score of 2.4 or more means that the item is grounded.
Over the years only a handful have failed the test, including Velcro straps, some unexpectedly potent aftershave and, most dramatically, a type of ink that caused heavy blistering in the testers’ nasal passages (before Mr Aldrich’s day).
For all their vigilance, certain odours are beyond the testers’ control. “There’s nothing we can do about bodily functions,” he acknow ledged. ‘We’re humans, we smell, that’s a fact of life.”
These are criticial times for Nasa, which is attempting its first return to space since Columbia exploded on re-entry in 2003, killing seven astronauts.
While some of the world’s leading engineers work on the problem at the Kennedy Space Centre, Mr Aldrich and his colleagues are looking to the future. The team of nostrils are checking material for a new spacesuit design: strips of high-strength aluminiumised polyester film called Mylar. So far, so good.
When Mr Aldrich, who started at White Sands 31 years ago, is not sniffing, he carries out toxicity tests as a laboratory technician and is writing a book about his experiences called Does This Smell Funny To You?
Before volunteers can sniff for Nasa they are checked for allergies, respiratory problems or other irritations. Every four months they have to take a three-bottle smell test and have their noses and throats re-checked.
Mr Aldrich has never thought of working in the perfume or wine industry, although he is a judge at America’s annual National Rotten Sneakers Contest in Vermont. “People sometimes say I should go off and make some real money, but I love what I do,” he said.
The Japanese are reportedly developing an “electronic nose” for their space programme. There has also been talk at Nasa about replacing Mr Aldrich’s team with a more sophisticated technical test.
That proposal, he says, will not work. “A machine cannot detect aftertastes and won’t suffer blistering,” he said. “The astronauts are humans and the best instrument for checking how they will respond to odours is clearly another human.”
It’s not rocket science, admittedly, but Mr Aldrich has no doubt about the importance of his job. “There would be no point investing all that money in the launch of a Shuttle only for it to be aborted because of a bad smell,” he said.