The Space Rose: How the Sense of Smell Mediates Human Futures in the Cosmos
In 1998, International Flavors & Fragrances, Inc. (IFF), a commercial perfume designer and biochemical research hub based in New York City, collaborated with NASA-affiliated scientists to study a miniature rose plant, a variety aptly named ‘Overnight Scentsation’, on the International Space Station (ISS). Although previous NASA experiments had shown that plants could grow there, this was the first to investigate how outer space’s lack of gravity might in turn change a secondary characteristic: the flower’s aroma. Would microgravity cause Overnight Scentsation to produce chemicals in a different combination than its sister plants Earth-side and give rise to a novel fragrance? The subsequent IFF analysis revealed that it had. Researchers there synthesised the scent – the so-called ‘space rose note’ – and later integrated it into a perfume by the Japanese cosmetics company Shiseido called Zen, a product that promised to give terrestrial consumers a whiff of the otherworldly.¹
Recent projects have diffracted outer space media through humans’ sense of smell, from the perfume Eau de Luna that was formulated on the basis of an astronaut’s interpretations of Moon dust (‘like spent gunpowder,’ as Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan described it), to the Center of the Galaxy lip balm that mimicked the scent of nebula Sagittarius B2 (the compound ethyl formate there smells like raspberries, according to Arizona State University researchers who developed it).² If such projects propose that extraterrestrial material can be made familiar through Earthly analogues, then the IFF-NASA experiment instead stages the possibility that outer space can facilitate unfamiliar and otherwise imponderable biochemistries.
Following the story of the space rose, this essay explores how humans’ sense of smell mediates humans’ sense of being in the cosmos. Often described as the archetypal mode of memory, the sense of smell offers the possibility of time travel. Scents are seemingly ephemeral yet lingering, momentary yet monumental. They both reconjure recollections of some previously entombed, eternal past of the sniffer (e.g., in the key of taste that is intertwined with smell, the novelist Marcel Proust’s famous description of the madeleine), but can render interlinking temporalities that concatenate the future (e.g., the muskiness of a grandmother’s mink coat that is passed down through generations). I consider how the sense of smell’s perceived temporal dimensions are joined to spatial dimensions of the cosmos through the vehicle of the space rose. That is, I explore how the sense of smell tugs phenomenologies of senses of time – backward and forward; alongside senses of place – experiences of Earth and the extraterrestrial.
Smell mediates memories of the past and expectations of the future by bridging one’s inner impressions to the outer world – and beyond – raising these questions: As the catalyser of past worlds whose uncanny powers unlock the cupboards of the mind, how could the sense of smell be important for humans who become extraterrestrial to remember Earth? (How would a settler of Mars transmit the sensory experience of Earthly flora to her baby born off-world?) Alternatively, how could new scents that humans could detect and create in outer space become untethered from Earth-bound biological comparisons, shaping perceptions of unexplored terrains? (How could the scent of a Titanian bloom in spring become its own idiosyncratic reference?) In other words, how could scents, and the biologies from which they spring, become both repositories for impressions of Earth and foreshadows of a future beyond it?
To consider these questions, I pose three vignettes that narrate how the sense of smell orchestrates human perceptions of outer space. Think of them as analytic petals that bloom through time as you read, transporting you from the ISS in outer space to the IFF laboratory on Earth and then, achieving new escape velocity, to Mars. The first story, a deeper dive into the NASA experiment, is about how the milieu of outer space entwined with Overnight Scentsation’s life cycle; that is, how the environment in which the rose plant bloomed could not be disentangled from the sensory perceptions it stimulated. It is a story about rearranging nature. The next is about technoscientific processes that, back on Earth, abstracted the rose’s materiality as its chemistry was reconstituted and then synthesised to create the commercial perfume Zen. It is a story about approximating nature. The third vignette considers how the Western imaginary of the rose intersects with a deep cherishment of one’s personal past. It is a story about symbolising nature. This final story – set in a future in outer space about remembering a past on Earth – tracks smell’s suggestibility not only to time travel, but to space travel.
This narrative structure mirrors how we use our sense of smell. Small stories – like different scents – waft through the essay, each grazing the reader from ‘different points of smell.’ Each smell story ends with a question that orbits the speculative modes of sensing (in) outer space. Like a perfume that deepens and changes as it is worn, these stories are amuse-nez to suggest how the sense of smell might liaise human futures of perceiving the cosmos.
Smell Story #1 (Base Note)
Rearranging Nature: Overnight Scentsation and the Milieus of Outer Space
Overnight Scentsation was bred to be a particularly fragrant rose varietal – a good choice for IFF researchers who hoped to study possible changes in the plant’s scent. From several specimens in their New Jersey greenhouse, the team selected a rose plant that had both an unopened bud and an inchoate bloom, allowing for it to more fully flower over the course of its journey. It was placed in ASTROCULTURE™, a miniature laboratory that hosted collaborations between NASA and industry partners seeking to commercialise biology in outer space.³ As testbeds for future bioregenerative systems that could support plant life on long duration space journeys or on lunar or Martian bases, ASTROCULTURE™ regulated various plants’ access to light, nutrients, temperature, and humidity. One condition on Earth, though, is dramatically different from outer space: gravity. Stems on Earth often grow against the gravitational pull of the planet, an aspect called ‘negative gravitropism’ that shapes how plants develop and reproduce. In a previous ASTROCULTURE™ experiment, scientists had shown that Arabidopsis thaliana, a plant related to cabbages and radishes, could complete a full life cycle from seed to seed despite outer space’s lack of gravity.⁴ For the space rose experiment, scientists were interested to study gravity’s effects at a molecular level. That is, they wanted to know if zero gravity would alter how the rose plant produced essential oils – the chemical ingredients that shape scent.
NASA’s Space Shuttle Discovery Flight STS-95 carried ASTROCULTURE™ to the ISS in late October 1998. Once in outer space, the astronauts (among them John Glenn, the first American to orbit the Earth in 1962) harvested the rose plant’s molecules four times during the ten-day flight. They used video equipment to see inside the ASTROCULTURE™ facility and manipulated small fibres situated around the plant. These fibres soaked up the plant’s volatile molecules, the vaporised chemicals that the bloom’s essential oils exuded. When Overnight Scentsation returned to Earth, IFF chemist Dr Braja Mookherjee’s analysis found that microgravity had indeed dramatically altered how the plant had produced essential oils – and thus how it smelled. Mookherjee remarked that while the Earth-bound control plants exhibited ’a very green, fresh rosy note,’ the outer space flower instead produced a ‘floral rose aroma’ that he found more pleasing.⁵ Mookherjee’s smell experience of the outer space rose does not simply point to a relation between the sniffer and the object, but the experimental conditions that created them. Although IFF scientists might have had knowledge about all the same compounds before the rose’s flight, outer space unlocked a novel combination and ratio. That is, microgravity did not cause the plant to develop previously unknown substances, but to arrange molecules in previously incomprehensible ways.
IFF’s framing of the space rose hinges on the concept that experimenters were able to adjust one environmental lever that affected the rose plant – turning ‘off’ gravity – but we might also consider how the sniffer is implicated in a sensory milieu. Attending to a ‘milieu’ draws our attention not merely to two interacting entities (flower, human), but how the environment conditions the possibilities of a sensory experience. Dr Rick Gerkin, a neurobiologist at Arizona State University and an affiliate of the Smell Lab there, explained, ‘When you smell something, it’s a function of the molecules and the environment.’⁶ A smeller, the chemicals, and the place are all entangled. For instance, although methane is odourless in everyday life, the atmospheric pressure in ocean depths – relatively higher than at the Earth’s surface – can cause the gas’ molecules to become perceptible to a diver. There, methane molecules dissolve into the diver’s mucus on their olfactory epithelium inside their nose, prompting them to perceive a camphoraceous odour (a medicinal smell akin to Vicks Vaporub). So, the question of ‘How does a Mars rock smell?’ is really, ‘How does a Mars rock smell on Earth?’, given the two planets’ different conditions and a sniffer’s sensory capabilities in each environment. As Gerkin put it: ‘The environment determines whether the subject can access the object’ – if they can sniff tulips in Holland or a rock on Mars – and ‘whether the object can access the subject’ – if molecules can become volatile and travel through a medium like air at a certain pressure to a sniffer’s sensory receptors.
The IFF experiment proposes that outer space milieus are poised to intervene on humans’ perceptions of biologies in novel ways. We might imagine a habitable exoplanet where gravity, say, is a fraction of Earth’s, but also, where clouds precipitate not water but some other liquid and ecosystems flourish with weird microbes and alien animal pollinators. These entities would all impact a human’s immersion in – indeed their collaboration with – the sensory milieu of which a fragrant extraterrestrial flower is just one component.
How could different outer space milieus – the murky methane lakes of Titan, the thick Venusian atmosphere clotted with carbon dioxide, the violent tumbling of a passing asteroid – show scientists unexpected combinations of molecules, revealing previously inaccessible – even currently unimaginable – scents?
Smell Story #2 (Heart, Note)
Approximating Nature: Scents Touch Your Brain
Deaccelerating from outer space to Earth, I return to the IFF laboratory. Mookherjee and the IFF team transferred the samples that the astronauts had taken of the rose’s essential oils into a machine called a gas chromatography-mass spectrometer (GC-MS). This process separated the different molecules in real time, allowing Mookherjee to obtain a computer reading of the flower’s odorous molecules. In addition to smelling Overnight Scentsation’s scent profile by nose, Mookherjee used the GC-MS to pinpoint the quantity and composition of all the compounds in the sample. Although each sample, taken at four points of time in outer space, had yielded different chemical compositions, Mookherjee then decided to average them together to create the space rose note. That note, a compression of the flower’s dynamic biochemical expression, was then mixed with others for the Zen fragrance. In creating it, perfumers tamped down some molecules and amplified others to create a final, pleasurable chemical concoction whose ingredient list could be reproduced. Such distillations of nature, once pried away from their biological origins, get regularised into synthetic versions of their biological references. These discrete, identifiable notes (e.g., powdery, amber, heliotrope) can then be infinitely recombined. By leveraging the GC-MS’s processes of digitisation and inscription, a biologist can approximate a flower’s essential oils to render its biology not only mutable, but marketable.
Dr Christina Agapakis, a Boston-based biologist and artist, ruminated with me on the strangeness of translating humans’ ‘very messy, very complicated’ sensory experiences of biological objects like flowers into synthetic distillations ‘that are meant to abstract that complexity’ – and do not always line up with their natural points of origin.⁷ That is, she told me, a scent abstracted from the flower smells different, even though it is considered to be ‘purer’ or ‘cleaner.’ Perfumers take the intimate, internal experience of smelling a rose and then ‘decompose it into something that then becomes tangible…in a laboratory environment,’ a process that increases its mobility.⁸ That synthetic note then becomes a tool, a stabilised chemical compound that circulates through perfumers’ communal parlance and the industry’s economies of production. As ‘natural’ scents get smoothed over, their remixed biologies travel from the laboratory into global networks of exchange as a commodity.
Shiseido discontinued that version of Zen, but one can find the scent on eBay for under $100. Agapakis and I exchanged an email about the moral implications of the IFF’s process of abstracting nature for commercial purposes. As she wrote, ‘While I think it’s true that these technologies by necessity flatten the experience and abstract it to make it work, I’m not sure that’s necessarily…bad? There is something quite interesting in having this incredibly rare experience (a rose in SPACE!!?!) be something you can buy on eBay.’⁹ Like NASA posters emblazoned with images of Saturn taken by the Cassini spacecraft, or Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night depicted on a coffee mug, the circulation of the space rose scent is implicated in larger economies of abstraction and reproduction.
The commercialisation of the space rose also illustrates the technical processes of remaking nature to choreograph humans’ intersubjectivities to suggest an out-of-this-world experience. As the IFF company’s website advertises, Mookherjee and his team created in the laboratory ‘a variety of heavenly fragrances previously unknown to the human senses of taste and smell.’¹⁰ They extracted, distilled, and then selected one particular balance of molecules to synthesise and later mass-produce a note that they called ‘spiritual’ for the Zen fragrance.¹¹ Descriptions of the scent as ‘heavenly’ and ‘spiritual’ evoke the notion that the transubstantiation of the rose in outer space could cause the wearer themself to be remade, unshackled from the terrestrial as they touch the celestial. Such a framing might also suggest that the perfume’s wearer not only could transcend the sublunary mundanity of Earth-bound living, but also the calculated and very worldly processes of commodification and advertising required to bring the perfume to market and distribution. Perhaps as a testament to the IFF and Shiseido’s successful branding of Zen, on the perfume’s entry on Fragrantica, an online community and encyclopedia of fragrances, commentor La DameDeNoir described the perfume as ‘terribly elegant’ and wrote that ‘there are no words to express such unearthy [sic] beauty’; ilikefragrantica wrote that it ‘remind[ed] me of all those oriental [sic] things in movies, which also could calm me down immediately.’¹² For these users, the intimate experience of smelling and wearing the Zen perfume in which ‘the actual material of the thing is touching your brain’ that ‘causes you to have feelings,’ in Agapakis’s words, is contrasted by the commercial process that alienated the space rose from its biology. The technoscientific processes of creating the Zen perfume I have described here paradoxically abstracted Overnight Scentsation’s nature to bring a wearer closer to an ‘authentic’ experience of outer space.
For these users, the intimate experience of smelling and wearing the Zen perfume in which ‘the actual material of the thing is touching your brain’ that ‘causes you to have feelings,’ in Agapakis’s words, is contrasted by the commercial process that alienated the space rose from its biology. The technoscientific processes of creating the Zen perfume I have described here paradoxically abstracted Overnight Scentsation’s nature to bring a wearer closer to an ‘authentic’ experience of outer space.
In some distant future, as humans’ sensory organs adjust to, or even evolve on, other worlds, how could extraterrestrial perfumers assemble fragrances of alien flowers, and what new emotions might they invoke?
Smell Story #3 (Top Note)
Symbolising Nature: In Search of Lost Earth
The NASA-IFF experiment illuminates how outer space can transmogrify Earthly biologies, and human perceptions of them; the IFF’s commercialisation of the rose suggests novel ways for scents to be abstracted from their referents, suggesting new ways to interpret and experience natures even beyond this world. I finally consider the symbolism of the rose that emerges from such materialities. The rose is the ur-flower of romance and chivalrous love in Western modernity. We find a root in the Iliad, in which Aphrodite, the Greek goddess associated with love, anoints the fallen Trojan hero Hector with the ‘ambrosial oil of roses’ to protect his body.¹³ The symbolic freight of that flower, from Shakespeare’s telling of the War of the Roses in Richard III to the magical rose in the Disney film Beauty and the Beast whose shedding petals threaten to trap the Beast in his monstrous form, has now sedimented into the droopy drugstore bouquet – a last-minute token of stereotypical, heteronormative love on Valentine’s Day. How could the rose’s symbolic resonances endure or mutate in extraterrestrial environments?
I ponder that question below. To end, leaping forward in time and propelling the reader back into outer space, I pose a vignette that is a mangled retelling of a passage from Marcel Proust’s sprawling work In Search of Lost Time often celebrated as a foundational exploration of the senses and memory.¹⁴ When his mother offers him a Madeleine, the novel’s narrator is transported back to his childhood home in Combray, France. He remembers how his aunt had dipped the spongy, shell-shaped cake in lime blossom tea and let him taste the crumbs; an experience that unraveled other moments of his boyhood home. The passage is an exploration of taste’s ability to trigger an involuntary memory: confronted by a confusing, half-glimpsed recollection that the madeleine’s immediate flavour had called forth, the narrator strains to go deeper, blockading the interfering perceptions of his current world to summon the objects, people, and places of his childhood in his mind.
Below, my imagined Martian biologist inhabits a future not yet realised just over the horizon of our now. She remembers moments on Earth in a scene that could take place soon, as projects to travel to and inhabit extraterrestrial sites gather momentum and materiality. Proust’s story of the taste of madeleine vivifies fin de siécle France, a past world; the Martian’s experience of smelling the rose evokes a possible future beyond this familiar one. Contemplated together, the passages suggest the spacetime-bending power of the human sensoria.
A catalyst for embodied ways of knowing, how is the sense of smell positioned to and, in some possible future, (re)familiarise Earth, or symbolize the experience of that planet, to extraterrestrial humans?
For a long time, I have gone to bed late. Or, at least, I linger in the Biolab hours after evening’s blue hands steadily choke the feeble sun over the Martian horizon, ending another sol on this bleak planet. I count each sol slowly, but it is already year 24. Or, year 2256 in Terratime, although it is often difficult to keep track because of Earth and Mars’ asynchronous orbits around their common sun. In the Biolab, I work alongside my mother, a botanist and biologist like me. Our primary task is to grow food for the settlement in the greenroom, a vestigial name from Earth that I like to think rebels against the monochrome of this red planet. From my mother, I learned how to tenderly lever plants’ predilections, nurturing fine tendrils into monstrous, sinewy stalks, and how to winnow seedlings’ thirsty desires from the watery planet of their origin. We crossbreed and cultivate hardiness, creating plants whose fruits and roots are better to eat than the freeze-dried supplies that arrive on the annual transports from Earth, but are victuals that are far from tasty. Occasionally, though, my mother and I harbour biology experiments in secret. We torque plants’ DNA in curious ways to break the monotony of the proscribed farming projects, trying to one up each other with our novel creations.
On one of these long Martian nights, my mother, shuffling slowly through the Biolab because of the gravity here, pulls something from a drawer in her work bench. ‘I have a surprise for you,’ she says, smiling with conspiracy. She hands me an alien rose. ‘I had these seeds smuggled in on the last transport,’ she explains. I carry to my nose that plump and fatly sensual flower and quiver, for it awakens a deep but veiled memory. I prick my finger on its jutting thorn, and the viscous blood of my body seeps out in pearls, mixing with the rubied color of the rose and hazy vermillion vista of Mars that stretches interminably, unbroken by trees and flowers and birds and clouds of the planet of my birth. I sniff again, clearing an empty space in my mind, and suddenly the memory appears. That smell was the smell of the little piece of rose-scented soap which on Sunday evenings in Cambridge my aunt Leona brought for my baths when I was a young child. Like a waiting soul, the scent that had long laid dormant now conjured all the ancient corporeal pleasures of Earth– of girlhood, of joy in the abandon of watery submersion of my baths long forgotten and indeed forbidden on this arid planet, of order and play in the Sunday ritual with my favourite aunt, how she gently soaped my hair, her softly glowing jade necklace she would let me wear, my mother’s laughter with her in our yellow kitchen when they were both young, memories gathering structure and flesh, all of this, emerged from my mother’s furtive rose.
The Wilding of Mars by Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, 2019
Human dreams of colonisation are not limited to Earth. We see Mars, untouched by Earth life as barren, treacherous, beautiful; another planet to colonise. But humans invariably become exploiters. Instead, could we imagine Mars colonised only by plants, flourishing without us? The Wilding of Mars was a project by the British South African artist Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg to simulate the growth of a planetary wilderness, seeded with Earth life forms. The Wilding of Mars simulates the growth of a planetary wilderness, seeded with Earth life forms. In the exhibition, a wild garden on Mars thrives over millennia, its growth visible over human hours. The pioneers are seeded in stages as conditions become more tolerable. The plants spread north from the South Pole, developing an ecosystem determined by global and local parameters of water, temperature, and nutrients.
Like other ‘frontiers’, Mars is seen by some humans as open for exploitation, whether or not indigenous life exists there. The Wilding of Mars instead prioritises a non-human perspective with plants visibly growing and colonising the terrain, while voyeuristic camera angles heighten the sense of human intrusion.
The aim is not to terraform Mars; here it is simply a repository for the mechanism of life. Plant life takes Mars in a different direction and Mars may take life elsewhere. In the installation, multiple simulations run in parallel; endless possible worlds emerge, challenging the assumption that the outcome of space colonisation must be human benefit. There are other paths life could take. Might leaving the planet to other life forms be the ultimate unnatural act for humans? Can we imagine Mars except as a place for ourselves?
The Wilding of Mars was commissioned by the Vitra Design Museum and the Design Museum.
Claire Isabel Webb is a historian and anthropologist of science and holds a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She researches the history of, and current practices around, the search for life beyond Earth. She is currently a Fellow at the Berggruen Institute and the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, California. Webb is also a Visiting Assistant Research at the University of California, Berkeley, where she collaborates with Breakthrough Listen scientists as they pursue evidence of extraterrestrial technology.
- ‘Space Rose Pleases the Senses’, NASA, 2002, https://spinoff.nasa.gov/spinoff2002/ch_1.html, accessed 1 September 2021.
- Tony Phillips, ‘The Mysterious Smell of Moondust’, NASA, 30 January 2006, https://science.nasa.gov/sciencenews/science-at-nasa/2006/30jan_smellofmoondust, accessed 1 September 2021; Nicole Sherwood, ‘ASU scientist created a lip balm that is truly out of this world’, The State Press, 28 August 2018, https://www.statepress.com/article/2018/08/spscience-asu-scientistcreated-a-lip-balm-that-is-truly-out-ofthis-world, accessed 1 September 2021.
- ‘Space Rose Pleases the Senses’, NASA, 2002.
- Bruce M. Link, James S. Busse, and Bratislav Stankovic, ‘Seed-to-seed-to-seed Growth and Development of Arabidopsis in Microgravity’, Astrobiology 14, no. 10, 2014, pp. 866–875, https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/ast.2014.1184, accessed 1 September 2021
- ‘Space Scents’, NASA, 18 December 2002, https://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2002/18dec_scents, accessed 1 September 2021; ‘Our History’, International Flavors & Fragrances, Inc., https://www.iff.com/about/history, accessed 1 September 2021.
- Conversation with the author, 9 September 2021.
- Agapakis has also explored the timewarping nature of smell. In an art project with collaborators Dr Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Sissel Tolaas, and Gingko Bioworks, Resurrecting the Sublime, Agapakis extracted DNA from flowers that had become extinct due to colonialism and reconstructed their scents. This project might be seen as complementary to the space rose; instead of creating novel combinations of molecules in outer space, Resurrecting the Sublime recovers experiences of lost plants on Earth. See: https://www.agapakis.com/work/sublime.
- Conversation with the author, 31 August 2021.
- Correspondence with the author, 23 September 2021.
- ‘Our History’, IFF.
- ‘Space Rose Pleases the Senses’, NASA, 2002.
- ‘Zen 2000 Shiseido for Women’, Fragrantica, https://www.fragrantica.com/perfume/Shiseido/Zen-2000-1277.html, accessed 1 September 2021.
- Homer and Robert Fagles, The Odyssey, New York, Penguin Books, 1990, 23.216.
- Marcel Proust, Swann’s Way: In Search of Lost Time, Volume 1, trans. Lydia Davis, New York, Penguin Random House, 2004, pp. 47–52.