In 1991, she became the first Briton in space, but what did Helen Sharman do next?
ASK Helen Sharman if she has any advice for Tim Peake, who next month will become the first British astronaut on the International Space Station, and she doesn’t mention any tips to deal with G-force. There’s no mention either of luxury items he should pack or how to deal psychologically with being so many thousands of miles above Earth.
Instead she says simply: “He just needs to remember to look out of the window every now and again. You don’t want space to pass you by.”
It was back in 1991 that Sharman, who grew up in Sheffield, became the first ever Briton in space after answering a radio advertisement two years earlier, which pretty much went ‘astronaut wanted, no experience necessary’.
Sharman was already a trained chemist, but while her job in the flavour department at Mars gave newspapers some easy headlines when she was chosen ahead of almost 13,000 she was an ordinary 27-year-old living in London and just starting out on her career. It was that very ordinariness which Project Juno was after.
“When you are looking for someone to send up into space, you want someone who is easy to get along with, who sometimes takes the lead and who sometimes steps back,” she says. “You don’t want someone prone to aggression, but you also want someone who is interesting to spend time with. Being an astronaut is much more than being scientifically minded. One of my other assets was my ability to sleep anywhere. When I’m tired, I really don’t mind where I am. I shut my eyes and that’s it.”
Project Juno was a joint arrangement between the Soviet Union and Britain and had been devised, at least in part, to cement relations between then President Mikhail Gorbachev and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Sharman didn’t worry about the politics too much. She didn’t have time.
Six months after her initial application she was at the Star City training facility where she spent the next 18 months preparing for space.
“There was nothing particularly glamorous about any of it. I was told I had been successful in a small London hotel room, then we were flown straight out to Russia. The Soviets had been training astronauts for years, so while it was a big deal for Britain, I just fell into a pretty standard system of training. The first three months were spent on Russian language tuition and after that it was all about the actual mission.”
When the launch date arrived, the aims of Project Juno had altered. Funding which the British government had hoped to secure for its own set of experiments had failed to arrive, but Sharman was nevertheless kept busy.
“In many ways the British government was ahead of its time. It rightly thought the project should be commercially funded, but unfortunately the investment from the private sector wasn’t there. It meant that I ended up helping with the Soviet experiments, looking at everything from how seeds germinate differently in space to how the body adapts to weightlessness.”
With huge public interest in Sharman’s space flight she also did a number of radio broadcasts with British schoolchildren and on the Mir space station she did also take time to look out of the window.
“Each day we made a point of all gathering around one of the big windows to talk not just about what we could see, but also about our friends and family. The colours you see in photographs of Earth taken from space never quite do it justice. It’s much more vibrant. The seas are a medium blue, but the colour is so deep it’s as though it goes on forever.
“On the space station you move around Earth every 92 minutes, but it is also spinning so there is always something different to see. When you look down and think my family is down there living their lives, it is a quite incredible feeling.”
While Earth might have spun serenely by, life on board the Soyuz TM12 space capsule was anything but peaceful.
“In space warm air doesn’t rise, so if you don’t do something to circulate the air you would end up breathing in what you have just breathed out. You wouldn’t suffocate immediately, but you would eventually so you have these great big noisy fans. They are so loud even when you are standing next to someone you have to shout.”
Sharman spent just eight days in space but returned to Earth something of a hero. Celebrity culture wasn’t what it is now, but she admits the attention was at first difficult to deal with.
“It was odd being recognised and I did initially wonder why anyone wanted to take a picture of me, but then it clicked that it was Helen Sharman the astronaut they were interested in. It was almost as though I had an alter-ego.”
In demand as a public speaker, for a while she did talks not just on her own experience in space, but about science in general and she remains passionate about the need to get children switched onto chemistry, physics and biology.
“My father was a physicist, so I was one of those children who could ask why is the sky blue and get an answer. However, for a lot of youngsters that’s not the case. Science is something that they only do for a couple of hours a week and they can’t wait to give it up. “That is terribly sad, because science can open so many doors and fantastic opportunities. There is not one easy answer to the problem, but I do think we need more junior school teachers who have a background in science so they are not afraid to bring it into other subjects and we need more politicians who have studied science so they can start these vitally important debates at the highest level.”
Almost a quarter of a century on from her space flight, Sharman is operations manger at the chemistry department at Imperial College London. She is still occasionally called on to talk about that week back in 1991, but she is much more interested in the future of space exploration. It does not come cheap and there are some who always ask how many nurses, policeman and schools could be funded with the same money.
“You could ask the same question of just about everything. When Michael Faraday discovered electricity one eminent individual asked, “But what is the use of it?” Of course you need money for health systems and schools so it’s always about compromise, but Arthur C Clarke was right when he said ‘when an organism ceases to explore it starts to die’.”
Sharman has talked a number of times to Peake and you get the impression that should there be a last minute hitch she would be more than happy to pull on the suit again.
“I think everyone who has been into space would love to return. However, I always knew that for me there was never going to be the possibility of becoming a career astronaut. It was always a one-off opportunity, but what an opportunity.”