Woman who looked down on the earth

Helen Sharman and her fellow astronauts.
Helen Sharman and her fellow astronauts.
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n Helen travelled to space on a Soyuz rocket with two cosmonauts.

From Jordanthorpe Comprehensive to stratospheric success. It’s been 20 years since Sheffield born-and-bred Helen Sharman travelled into space. The scientist talks to Rachael Clegg about what the experience was like.

Helen Sharman

Helen Sharman

WHEN we think of space travel, we think of NASA, Apollo 13 and the infamous TV footage of man setting foot on the moon for the first time in history. We don’t think of an ex-Jordanthorpe Comprehensive School student.

But this year marks the 20th anniversary of the first Briton to travel into space, Grenoside girl Helen Sharman.

And it was no ordinary space mission. Helen was recruited via a radio advertisement, which stated ‘astronaut wanted, no experience necessary’. A keen scientist, Helen responded. And won. She was just 27 years old.

Now, two decades on from her extra-terrestrial travels, 47-year-old Helen looks back at her experience as part of the Soviet Union-backed mission to the Mir space station.

Helen Sharman

Helen Sharman

“I was channel-hopping when I heard the advert for my space mission but I have no idea which channel I was on when I heard it,” says the former astronaut.

But it was no straightforward competition. Helen had to go through a gruelling selection process, which involved medical, psychological and gravity tests.

“There was a long selection process, starting with a telephone interview and then an application form to complete,” she recalls.

“There were psychological and medical tests, then another round of more in-depth psychological and medical tests.

British astronaut Helen Sharman. See PA SCIENCE Sharman.

British astronaut Helen Sharman. See PA SCIENCE Sharman.

“There was a day doing specific medical tests at the Institute of Aviation Medicine, which included experiencing 8g - eight times the normal force of gravity - in a centrifuge and doctors trying to induce motion sickness. At each point there were fewer candidates left going through. Yet more medicals were required.”

The tests came before Helen and the other three candidates even travelled to Moscow.

“The Soviets were to then perform their own tests. This went on for about five months.”

Then, on live TV, two of the final four were selected to go to Star City - the place where budding cosmonauts and astronauts train. And Helen was one of them.

But her relocation to Star City in 1989 was something of a culture shock. The base - about 90 minutes drive from Moscow - had very few shops and few people spoke English.

“I had to get used to living on a military base as well as learning to speak Russian and making new friends,” she says. “There was a small number of shops, though frequently there was nothing on the shelves at that time.

“I learned the value of relationships and I was saddened to realise how materialistic my life had become in England. Living in Soviet Russia with no office to provide support was frustrating at times but I would not have learned the valuable lessons for life had I not experienced it.”

The testing took two years, and though Helen passed every stage she couldn’t be sure she would actually travel to space: “By the time I could be sure that I would fly, I was in a seat on top of a rocket with a job to do.”

The job involved conducting scientific experiments for the Soviet Union and some for Britain, as the mission was part-funded by some UK companies, including Interflora.

The British experiments involved taking pansy seeds up into space, storing them in the space station and bringing them back to Earth to see what the effects of being in space would have on the future plants.

This was somewhat woollier than Helen’s experiments for the Soviet Union, which involved researching the effect of vacuum and radiation on materials that could be used on future space craft exteriors. She also carried out EEG and ECG tests on people to measure the effect of weightlessness on the body. During her time in space Helen experienced the sensation of weightlessness.

She says: “Feeling weightless is something that takes a couple of days to get accustomed to. Body fluids redistribute themselves towards your head to start with and it feels uncomfortable.”

Even the simplest tasks, like going to the loo and having a cup of tea, are difficult in space.

“The toilet is really a flow of air into a funnel and a collection device. Tea can be drunk out of a packet, by squeezing the plastic sachet to get the tea to move through a flat straw and into your mouth.”

But despite slightly uncomfortable tea drinking, there were many good points about her space mission. Helen says: “We have all seen photographs of the Earth from space and they are pretty accurate, except for the brilliance of the white of clouds and snow, the reflections at certain angles from still water and the depth of the blue of seas.

“Nobody tires of Earth watching, partly because the image is constantly changing: the spacecraft is orbiting the Earth and the Earth is spinning in space.

“Our preferred method of relaxing was to gather by the largest window we had and talk about whatever came to mind as we passed over our families and friends below.”

For her voyage Helen carried with her an identity card ‘in case I landed in a country that was not expecting me’, a brooch that her father gave to her and a portrait of the Queen.

“The photograph of the Queen and the Royal Family that I took into space was one that had been given to the museum in Star City many years before, probably when Gagarin visited the UK in 1961. I returned this photograph to the museum.

“I was allowed only a couple of hundred grammes of hand luggage and everything that I would really need was provided for me so I chose to take a small brooch my father had given me, along with some other small items from other family members and friends.”

Helen is still involved in science. She works at National Physical Laboratory as group leader for the Surface and Nanoanalysis Group. She is also patron of Spacelink Learning Foundation, a charity that aims to motivate young people to enjoy science, technology, engineering and maths.

And, 20 years on from her blast-off, she is still passionate about space and has openly criticised British governments in the past for not funding manned space travel.

“I think there is a change in the attitude of the British Government now towards human space flight. For the first time in decades Britain has a space agency and I am sure the Government has realised that Britain should not remain out in the cold when it comes to having a presence on the International Space Station.”

But to Helen, space travel means more than awe-inspiring views of our planet. It marks the frontier of man’s development.

“Arthur C Clarke used to say that when a nation ceases to explore, it starts to die,” she says.

“Not only is space there to be explored, we can develop our understanding of science by going there and it is hugely inspirational to know that one’s own nation is thrusting forward with the rest or the world.”

Helen’s travels

Helen travelled to space on a Soyuz rocket with two cosmonauts.

She blasted off from Kazakhstan in 1991 - the same year as the end of the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

She spent eight days living on the Mir space station, conducting experiments for Britain and the Soviet Union.

She carried with her a photograph of the Queen and a brooch her father gave to her.

Helen was born in Grenoside, she was a student at Jordanthorpe Comprehensive School and studied chemistry at the University of Sheffield. She obtained her PhD from Birkbeck University of London.

The space suit worn by Helen during her mission is on display at the National Space Centre in Leicester.