He has never donned a diving suit or been in space. But in his laboratory with a thousand bottles near Toulouse, the “aroma sculptor” Michaël Moisseeff has reconstituted, at the request of the Cité de l’Espace, the smell … of the Moon.
Floral shirt and white hair tied back, this 66-year-old trained geneticist has dedicated his life to dissecting the mysteries of smell and producing all kinds of scents, fragrances and emanations from molecules.
“To recreate the smell of an undergrowth, for example, you have to go there first. Is there moss? Lichen? Humidity? I take an inventory and brings my elements together like a painter with his palette of colors, then works on the proportions to try as much as possible to be in the finesse “, details the aromatician.
But for the Moon, the Cité de l’Espace in Toulouse “did not want to pay for the trip”, jokes Mr. Moisseeff in his house in Montégut-Lauragais (Haute-Garonne) which he has transformed into a museum with a garden of scents, an osmothèque and a laboratory containing a thousand and one scents.
The only opportunity for this “aroma sculptor”, as he defines himself, is to resort to the descriptions made by various astronauts who walked on the Moon, in particular Niel Armstrong.
“Due to the lack of oxygen on the Moon, he could obviously not smell anything but once back in the module, the smell of dust clinging to his diving suit reminded him of the burnt black powder of old (rifles) six shots”, he said.
– Carbon and sulfur notes –
How to reproduce it? Mr. Moisseeff decides to detonate black powder himself in his own saucepans. After several failed attempts and as many fears, he succeeded in “capturing” a burnt deposit.
Then, once the scent is in mind, the modern alchemist has assembled several elements in his laboratory, for a result with metallic, carbonaceous and sulfur notes that titillate the nostrils and the imagination.
The noses of more than a million visitors have rubbed shoulders with the Cité de l’Espace in Toulouse – the European leader in the dissemination of space and astronomical culture to the general public – in 2009 for the first time, then since 2019 for the exhibition dedicated to the 50th anniversary of Man’s first steps on the Moon.
“This enigmatic smell reproduced from the descriptions of certain astronauts evokes scents known as gunpowder or chimney ash, but that does not mean that one finds it on the Moon”, tempers Xavier Penot, scientific mediator at the Cité de l’Espace and the origin of the idea.
– “Individual feeling” –
“And above all, what is interesting is that not everyone feels it the same way,” he adds.
“An odor is when a molecule encounters a sensor in your olfactory lining, generating a signal that will cause a sensation in you,” explains Moisseeff.
“And this feeling is absolutely individual, depending on the genetics and the experience of each one”, he adds, specifying that the human being has around 260 odor sensors.
This Parisian of origin who decided forty years ago to put down his suitcases in the South-West so that his daughter “grow up far from pollution”, has since worked tirelessly on the development of olfactory culture with the great public.
“Smells are like in music, you have to do your scales all the time,” he says.
The nose always in action, this “scientific artist” has been designing for years installations and fragrant experiences in telephone booths, entire villages or performance halls at the request of museums, associations or companies, and animates “odor tasting” training and workshops.
His next challenge? “Reconstructing the scent of the Mona Lisa”, that is to say a perfume from the Renaissance era, “a meticulous work of investigation and historical research”, he confides with excitement.