NASA Contractor explains why the Space Shuttle smelled quite bad when ground crews got aboard after a flight to clean and unload

Is true that the Space Shuttle smelled quite bad when ground crews got aboard after a flight to clean and unload?

NASA’s shuttle fleet achieved numerous firsts and opened up space to more people than ever before during the Space Shuttle Program’s 30 years of missions.

The space shuttle, officially called the Space Transportation System (STS), began its flight career with Columbia roaring off Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Apr. 12, 1981. Atlantis flew the final space mission, STS-135, in July 2011.

According to the NASA’s PDF Space Shuttle Era Facts, this unique vehicle system, which consists of about 2 1/2 million moving parts.

The orbiter vehicle (OV), most commonly referred to as the space shuttle, is the only part of the shuttle “stack” [that besides the orbiter comprises twin solid rocket boosters (SRBs), giant external fuel tank (ET) and three space shuttle main engines (SSMEs)] that makes the trek into orbit. Its boosters are jettisoned into the Atlantic Ocean, retrieved and reused. The external tank is the only part of the stack not used again. Instead, it re-enters the atmosphere about nine minutes after launch and burns up over the Pacific Ocean. When the shuttle returns to Earth, it does not land under parachutes as NASA’s Apollo capsules that preceded it. Instead, it returns by gliding back on a pair of wings to a runway on Earth.

But is true that the Space Shuttle smelled quite bad when ground crews got aboard after a flight to clean and unload?

‘The answer to this question is a ‘YES!’ in all capital letters!’ Explains Dave Mohr, a NASA contractor, on Quora.

‘After landing, the operating capacity of the Environmental Control System was somewhat reduced by virtue of the vehicle no longer being in a vacuum. This reduced the effectiveness of the conditioning (and odor removal) of the cabin air.

‘All ‘fresh food’ and ‘wet trash’ stored in the vehicle (as well as other things) began to get pretty rank after a while.

‘In the cases that I am aware of the vehicle was completely powered down somewhere between 45 min and 1 hour after landing, due to exhaustion of the onboard coolant working fluid (ammonia). [The environmental system was run until ammonia was depleted. It did not interfere with the ability to detect hydrazine, as this detection was done by inserting a probe up into the throat of each thruster. The ammonia boiler would not have interfered with that. Having said that, the vehicle only had something like 1/2 hour of Ammonia remaining after coming to a stop on a typical landing.]’

Mohr concludes;

‘The stagnant air in the crew module was in really bad shape before very long.’

Space Shuttle Discovery being prepared after landing for crew disembarkment

Photo credit: Carla Thomas, NASA

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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