For an operation as complex as a space mission, specific issues pop up that most people would never imagine. It is rocket science, after all. So NASA has to dot every i and cross every t, and they need to find specialists who have talents unlike anyone else in the world.
George Aldrich always fantasized about winning the space race, but he never could have envisioned exactly how he would become one of the most peculiar heroes of space exploration. In an organization that works in a literal vacuum, George’s skill set brings a breath of fresh air.
When George Aldrich’s teacher told him to “shoot for the stars” as a child, he took that advice pretty literally. Fast forward several decades, and he’s caught way more than just a whiff of success.
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Growing up in New Mexico, George watched his dad fly up the Navy ranks and join the coveted Blue Angels. He always dreamed of reaching such soaring heights, and so he looked for a heroic job as soon as he finished high school.
George started a bit smaller. He volunteered for the local fire department, and his recent chemistry and mathematics experience piqued the interest of the chief. He signed up George for a special task on the force.
While he didn’t extinguish many infernos, George stood out on the department’s odor panel. By training his sense of smell, he could sense problems like gas leaks before they had a chance to ignite. Soon, George realized he was meant for bigger and better things.
In 1974, his chief recommended that George take his talents to the next level. NASA had a firm presence in the area, so perhaps, George figured, he could secure a position there. At the same time, not just anybody could waltz in and apply to be an astronaut.
After the Apollo 1 disaster — in which a technical function aboard a shuttle killed all three crew members aboard — NASA was taking safety seriously. They needed staff who could prevent disasters most people would never see coming.
After sending in his application, George had to take a strenuous exam to see if he was made of the right stuff. Hours later, he set his pencil down and headed home, waiting for a phone call that would make or break his dreams.
Then the good news came in: NASA told George to report to the White Sands Test Facility immediately, where he would begin his new role as a Chemical Specialist. But what exactly did that mean?
Well, if you asked George about his job, he would describe himself as a “Nasalnaut” or the “Chief Sniffer.” That’s because his real responsibilities boil down to smelling anything that NASA sends into space.
Odd as it sounds, George’s role makes sense. Astronauts go into space for long periods of time, stuck in close quarters, breathing in recirculated air. The last thing command wants is any harmful odors or substances traveling along with them, smelling up the shuttle.
NASA / Don Pettit
That’s precisely where George and his team come in. They personally inspect the smell of every piece of cargo and gear to make sure everything is ship-shape. Of course, nobody has been sniffing for longer than George.
He holds the NASA record for the most official sniffs, with his number approaching one thousand. Naturally, George’s system is more nuanced than just judging a scent as good or bad.
The odor panel blindly scrutinizes each object, so their everyday conceptions about the items won’t cloud their judgment. From there, the sniffers rank everything on a scale from 0-4. If something scores higher than 2.5, they suggest leaving it on Earth.
Between tests, George might cleanse his palate, so to speak, using a trick developed by perfumers. He simply resets his nostrils by smelling the back of his own hand, which is sometimes called “going home.” And his work has likely saved lives.
A manned space mission involves so many complex chemical reactions, that NASA cannot risk any toxic materials sneaking aboard. The astronauts themselves may not be able to detect it, so they require an expert nose to do it for them — and more.
Much of the time, the most problematic materials aren’t what you would expect. George has found that old-fashioned camera film, for example, can be surprisingly toxic. Meanwhile, other items can just get downright disgusting.
Something as basic as velcro can stink up an entire space shuttle. George once determined that while separate velcro straps have no real odor, together they can produce an unbearably pungent smell. But not every scent can be swept away.
George says that when it comes down to it, humans really stink, and there’s not much NASA can do about it. Because of basic functions like sweating and going to the bathroom, astronauts need to learn to live with a little odor.
After 44 years, George is still going strong. He estimates that he’s only ever missed two tests — due to sickness — over his entire career. You could say he wrote the book on odor testing, and he’s definitely smelled that book as well.
Even with all their testing, George will be the first to admit that every space mission has its own surprises. Astronauts will often come across something unexpected, either inside or outside their space craft. NASA legend Graham Cooper knew that better than anyone.
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When Gordon Cooper of Oklahoma was about seven years old, his dad, an Army colonel, allowed him to ride along in his airplane—and briefly let the young boy take the controls. This simple act would spark Cooper’s lifelong fascination with flying.
Before he turned 32, Cooper had served in the Marines, the Air Force, and as a test pilot on Edwards Air Force Base. There he suggested industry-changing improvements to the F-106B Delta Dart jet fighter. Then, he received an unbelievable offer…
It was 1959 when NASA invited Cooper to Washington, D.C. as a potential candidate for the Mercury Project. The project sought to put a man into Earth’s orbit and then return him safely, and Cooper was an ideal candidate.
After placing him on a shortlist of 109 potential candidates, NASA selected Cooper as one of seven men for the program. In May 1963, he conducted his first mission aboard the Faith 7, a craft so small it could only fit someone under five feet and 11 inches tall.
The instructions NASA gave the enthusiastic Oklahoman were simple: go into space solo, survive, and study zero gravity’s prolonged effects on the human body. At least, this was the mission as far as the public was concerned…
NASA via Space Flight Insider
The project started out a rousing success. From May 15 to 16, for just about 34 hours, Cooper orbited Earth, becoming the first astronaut to sleep in space. But then, in the midst of this enormous accomplishment, disaster nearly struck…
As Faith 7 returned to Earth, the automatic piloting system malfunctioned. An experienced flier that he was, Cooper didn’t panic. Instead, he grabbed the controls and maneuvered the spacecraft into a perfect landing on a waiting aircraft carrier. His mission was complete… or was it?
NASA via Discovery
Though the public didn’t know it at the time, Cooper’s mission also involved taking pictures. “Man, all I do is take pictures, pictures, pictures,” he said in a message to ground control. “I’m up to 5,245 now.” But he wasn’t just looking for eye-catching images…
L. Gordon Cooper / NASA
Cooper’s camera was actually equipped to detect magnetic aberrations along the Earth’s surface. This allowed him to secretly look for Soviet nuclear bases or submarines off the coast of the United States—and, boy, did he uncover some eye-opening stuff.
RR Auction via Collect Space
In the process of searching for secret nuclear bases, Cooper also detected hundreds of anomalies near the Caribbean, which he carefully charted in his small Faith 7 spacecraft. These aberrations, he noticed, weren’t big enough to be nuclear sites—not by a long shot. So, what were they?
Discovery Channel via Mother Nature Network
Cooper wasn’t sure what he’d spotted from space, but he had a few ideas—and they required further research. For an unknown reason, he never told NASA or the Department of Defense about these strange anomalies. He decided to embark on his own personal mission…
NASA via Discovery
Once safely back on Earth, Cooper started investigating his findings. The anomalies he saw all seemed bunched around old trading routes that had been highly trafficked by Spanish ships. Surely this was more than a coincidence…
Cooper quickly made the connection from the shipping routes to possible shipwrecks, and he researched everything he could regarding centuries-old shipwrecks. Eventually, he felt confident that he had, in fact, charted some of them from space! What did this all mean?
The world would have to wait to find out. He had a long and successful career—including a mission on the Gemini 5, during which he spent 190 hours in space. Still, Cooper never had the time to truly explore his findings. Then, as he grew older, time started running out…
NASA via Honey Suckle Creek
Afflicted with Parkinson’s and nearing the end of his days, Cooper didn’t want his secret discovery to be for naught, so he phoned his friend, Darrell Miklos (right). An explorer who had experience hunting for rocket ship debris, Miklos would be able to investigate on Cooper’s behalf.
Cooper passed away in 2004, but by then his map was safely in his friend’s possession. At long last, it was time for Miklos to investigate what Gordon Cooper had seen from space all of those decades ago. Was there any truth to it?
“I believed Gordon 100 percent,” Miklos told Parade magazine. “I didn’t need proof.” Neither did the Discovery Channel, which, along with Miklos, created Cooper’s Treasure, a 2017 TV show that documented the investigation.
Discovery UK / YouTube
So, what did they find? On one journey, Miklos and his crew traveled to a spot on Cooper’s map looking for evidence of a shipwreck. With the help of deep-sea diving gear, they surveyed the ocean’s floor, hoping for a sign…
Discovery UK / YouTube
Sure enough, the crew uncovered a massive anchor! They hauled it to their deck, and soon after they realized that it was from the era of Christopher Columbus. This made it an extremely valuable artifact from the past!
Discovery UK / YouTube
By mid-2017, Miklos and his crew had searched five spots on Cooper’s map, and at all five, they found evidence of a shipwreck. With hundreds of points still left to explore, what other treasures might be waiting for Miklos to uncover?
Miklos planned to visit the rest of the locations, but it would take time. Still, as he told Newsweek, “I hear Gordon all the time in the back of my head: ‘You’re on the right trail!'” And it sure looked that way.
Discovery Channel via ABC News
Regardless of whether Miklos would be able to spend the next few decades searching for his friend’s discoveries remains to be seen. Still, you know that Gordon Cooper—the Oklahoma boy who reached the stars—would be happy to see his secret finally paid off!
NASA via Collect Space