Helen Sharman: The Yorkshire astronaut on the ability to stay grounded

Astronaut Helen Sharman tells David Behrens how her Yorkshire upbringing stood her in good stead amid the attention when she returned to Earth as a hero.

There is some irony in the job Helen Sharman was doing when she heard the advert that changed her life. Astronaut wanted – no experience necessary, was more or less what it said. Confectionery, but the prospect of becoming a part of Project Juno, an interstellar arrange ment between the Soviet Space Agency and a company in Brit She was a chemist at Mars - -ain, was impossible to resist.

Two years later, aboard Soyuz TM-12 en route to the Mir space station, she became the frst Briton in space. She returned to Earth something of a hero, and although she admits that the atention wasn’t always easy to deal with, her background stood her in good stead.

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The daughter of a physicist in Grenoside, north of Sheffield, she had atended Jordanthorpe Comprehensive – now Meadowhead School – and remained in the city to study for her BSc.

“It’s hard at the time, especially when you’re very young, to think about how your environment shapes you,” she says of her Yorkshire upbringing,

“But having spent time in the south and in training near Moscow, I can see how hugely influential it can be.

“What I do know is that I feel very very determined. I’ve got very strong views and I’m easily outraged if I see something I feel is unfair or wasteful. Those are very Yorkshire characteristics.

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“I don’t like having to pussyfoot around people or trying to second-guess what they might be thinking. I’d just much rather tell it straight, and

that’s what people in Yorkshire tend to do.

“There’s also a tenacity that goes with the Yorkshire spirit – the idea that we will make it, come what may. I think that wherever I live, that bit of Yorkshire comes with me.”

It was one regional characteristic – that of keeping one’s counsel, rather than making a fuss – that was on her mind during her mission in 1991.

“I’m quite an introverted person and I would shy away from any public stage,” she says. “But going into space I knew that people would be watching and that I had to have some sort of a public profle.

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“So when I got back I decided I wanted to tell people the story, and I spent time doing TV interviews and giving talks around the country, popping into schools. Afer that I thought I’d

prety much forget about it all and go away and get a job again.”

She was half right. Her job is as operations manager in the Department of Chemistry at Imperial College London, but her passion for science, and for communicating it to the next generation, has never gone away.

She has helped to promote the British Science Festival, a four-day event which is being staged next month at Hull University and at venues across the city.

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“I feel a shared identity that somehow associates me with other people in Yorkshire,” she says

“I love the whole way in which people in Yorkshire seem to operate. It’s very practical, very pragmatic. People are honest and open, and I like that.

“There’s a sense of kindred spirit amongst people who have made Yorkshire their home, whether or not they were born there. They feel as though they’re part of the county. I still do, even though I’m not actually living there at the moment.”

The event in Hull will be an opportunity to address what she sees as the disconnect between scientists and the community.

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“I have an ambition to make this country embrace science and engineering in a way that many other countries already do,” she says.

“Science is not just necessary – it’s something that’s going to improve our lives and it should be interesting to discuss, rather than just a part of industry or something we have to learn at school.

“It’s really part of part of our culture in the same way as music, the arts and the theatre.

“It’s geting there – you can now go to the theatre and listen to a scientist for an evening just like you might listen to a stand-up.

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“That’s great, and it’s one of the fun things about a science festival – and in Hull they’ve got this great opportunity to bring science to life.

“We have music festivals, we have literature festivals, so why not a science festival?”

However, with science, she says, comes accountability.

“None of us will ever understand all science in depth, so we have to be able to ask questions of our policy-makers in the same way as in other aspects of life. A lot of scientists themselves are not necessarily very good at seeing where information fts into the bigger picture, and I think the Government ofen oversimplifes maters.

“They will tell us to must make sure we eat five portions of fruit or vegetables each day, whereas actually the scientifc advice is to base your diet on fruits and vegetables with the occasional bit of protein and carbohydrate and aim for eight or more portions a day.

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“But governments think they have to give people targets that are achievable, and so instead of giving out the actual advice, it puts out what it thinks people can take on board. Then people have their five a day and they think they don’t need any more.

“The answer is for us to be asking questions and making sure that we’re geting answers that are working for us. What works for one person doesn’t necessarily work for another.”

She sees herself as having been “very very privileged” to be among only 561 people in the whole of human history to have gone into space.

“I never expected to be chosen,” she says.

“No Yorkshire person would be so presumptuous. During the selection process I expected a phone call at any time to say they no longer wanted me, but they kept asking me to come back for the next stage.”

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She was 27 when she heard that the list of 13,000 applicants had been whitled down to just one.

“I’m certainly very much aware that not many people get that opportunity,” she says.

“It’s that privileged position made me want to pass on some of the story when I got back.

“It set me on a course that I hadn’t ever imagined.”