Apparently Space Stinks


ceramic incinerator side with sgraffito of incinerator, smoke and latin phrases


After one gets over the news that it smells bad, it looks like the odor of Outer Space is hard to pin down. It’s reportedly a bit like burnt metal, welding fumes and seared steak. Acrid but slightly sweet; sulphurous and undeniable. The astronauts’ suits and gear, upon returning from space walks, stunk like they’d been camping at a celestial tire fire. It was such an unlikely surprise.

But at one time so was the discovery that smoke from earthly tire fires, oil refineries, automobiles and backyard incinerators probably was to blame for the continually bad air.

As we look at the third side of my Homefire 1957 ceramic incinerator sculpture, (links to discussions of the first two sides and more below) we see a smaller backyard incinerator silhouette belching dirty smoke up to the starry empyrean. After all, this piece is about the synthesis of two separate occurrences in the first week of October, 1957: the banning of backyard incinerators in all of Los Angeles County and the launch of Sputnik 1 into low earth orbit. Both speak of the fouling of the atmosphere, literally or metaphorically.

But once you learn that space stinks, too, exactly how the troposphere or the exosphere become fouled is less important than the fact that they are.

We can count the ways if we translate those Latin phrases written in the smoke. Starting at the bottom and reading up we have:

Chemical Putridium or Rotten Chemicals, which is what the choking populace said smog smelled like.

Metallum Holocaustum or Burnt Metal, which is the stink of space, possibly brought there by cosmonauts and their vodka-laden breath and sweat.

Aeris Incrusto or Air Defiled, referencing the unbreathable smog layer as well as the intrusion of satellites into a pristine world.

Orbis Incendium or World on Fire, meaning all of it from incinerators to global warming, from firing missiles to space wars.


While it’s not quite right to assume a literal Butterfly Effect of causation and progression here – Nature is too random, scientists say – in my experience the small becomes writ large with an arc of energies. At least in my autobiographical mind, one acrid backyard trashburner fire is forever related to the stinkalicious deflowering of space.

–Liz Crain, who understands you might not quite believe it about the cosmonauts smelling up the cosmos. But go ahead and look it up.

Links for Posts About the HOME Exhibit and My Piece in It

“Homefire 1957” Sculpture 

“HOME” Exhibit 

Exhibit Details: “HOME” Member’s Exhibit 2016, July 6 – August 7, 2016,  Pajaro Valley Arts Gallery, 37 Sudden St., Watsonville, CA




Share this: