Lots of Derivative Ink: The smell of space! NASA trains astronauts on it… Hmm. Smells like something for sure.

The last week or so has seen  several news outlets reporting not only that space (actually, the insides of space ships and stations) has a distinct odor but that active research is underway on it. Speaking of distinct odors, this one smells a little like a fish. Which means old. And perhaps not entirely true even when it was fresh.

The gist of the supposed news is that an ozone-tinged, slightly metallic, sort of sweet odor with a tincture of burnt steak is pretty consistently reported by space travelers. Also that NASA has hired a chemist in the UK to duplicate it for use in training.

And here's the problem, first reported to the tracker in an email by the UK's keen-eyed Jonathan Leake at the Sunday Times. The essence of the story, Leake quickly learned as he got curious about it, was first run nearly four years ago in several UK newspapers and spread rapidly from there. Here's one version, still to be found on the site of India's The Hindu. At the Discovery Channel in 2008 Dave Mosher ran an interview with the chemist, Steve Pearce.He is an authority on the chemical nature of odorants and was then thinking that preliminary conversations might get him a NASA contract for more work.

Before I list the recent spate of stories please let me share what Pearce says about the stories then, and the new ones. He told both Leake and me in separate communications that before this became news again, nobody called him. In fact, NASA never went through with the contract in the first place. "It all became a non-event for us, even at the time [of the first news go-round in 2008] …It is now starting to appear again." A few new agencies, he adds, have called him in the last week or so to confirm and get more. "I tell them what happened, and they decide no story," Pearce said.

So how did it happen again?

The first, big push was at The Atlantic in a story by Megan Garber, July 19. It includes accounts she gathered from astronauts and clippings on astronauts and the like, but includes this section:

So NASA, now, is trying to reproduce that smell for training purposes — the better to help preemptively acclimate astronauts to the odors of the extra-atmospheric environment. And the better to help minimize the sensory surprises they'll encounter once they're there. The agency has hired the scent chemist Steve Pearce to recreate space stench, as much as possible, here on earth.

Pearce came to NASA's attention after he recreated, for an art installation on "Impossible Smells," the scents of the Mir space station. (This was, he notes, a feat made more complicated by the fact that cosmonauts tend to bring vodka with them into space — which affects not only the scent of their breath, but also that of their perspiration.) The result of Pearce's efforts? "Just imagine sweaty feet and stale body odor, mix that odor with nail polish remover and gasoline … then you get close!"

The problem here is that, again, Pearce says now that he never told reporters back then that he actually hired on with NASA – the project was stillborn. And that was four years ago.

Garber explains how she got on to the story this way:

Happy to answer your questions. The "smell of space" post was a roundup in story form, bringing together previous reporting into a new narrative. My coworker had forwarded me a short Tumblr post about the smell of space — this one — and the concept intrigued me, so I decided to learn more about it. I realized, after searching, that the matter had been covered before. It was new to me, though, which made me think it might be new to readers, as well. So I tried to incorporate what had been previously written by synthesizing the separate reports and making a more complete story out of the "what does space smell like?" question. I certainly wasn't trying to suggest that I had done new reporting in the story, however, and hope the many links in the post and its overall execution make that clear. 
 
I wasn't aware, however, that the NASA scent efforts hadn't moved forward. I've updated the post to reflect the current state of the project — and thanks for letting me know. 
 
As for how the story spread elsewhere, I'm not sure about that. If you're thinking of writing something on this, let me know, and I can try to look into it. But the short answer is that, if people are reposting parts of a post without attribution, I am neither thrilled nor surprised.
 
In other words, the Atlantic ran a story that was largely cut, rewrite, and paste. Well-rewritten too, but not new and not entirely true either. She took as reliable the news reports of that time, without calling chemist Pearce (who is easy enough to reach), to check whether he had a NASA contract four years ago and that it is in some way current news.  Garber promptly amended her piece after learning via out communications that Pearce has no contract with NASA.
 
  Garber has done many stories for the Atlantic. Her oversight is not condonable, but may well be isolated. What is so much harder to countenance is that so many other outlets went unblinkingly with her rendition of things, rejiggered them a bit, and ran them as news now. Some started rewriting the rewrites. Again, not everybody failed due diligence. Pearce does say one of the fact-check calls was  from "public radio" in the US.
 
    What do we have? An example of the metastasis of error and misleading characterization in media, fomented by over-credulous acceptance of what somebody else wrote and passing it along while simplifying and thus further distorting things, sometimes with a fresh byline and sometimes with a reference to The Atlantic, but little or no original reporting. One might get angry and start wagging fingers. I'll just lay out the consequence. Fortunately the news is a trifle. Thus, this time, little harm has been done.
 
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– Charlie Petit