Sexism in space? Helen Sharman should never be forgotten

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It's not rocket science.

Sheffield's Helen Sharman WAS the first British astronaut to venture into space.

Her role in scientific exploration has been forgotten by some though - including, for a while, the Government-funded UK Space Agency.

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Yet the former Grenoside Infant and Jordanthorpe Comprehensive school pupil did indeed make history and is proud of her role in the quest for celestial knowledge.

Helen, now aged 60, spent eight days orbiting the Earth after blasting off in a Russian Soyuz spacecraft in May 1991.

Since then, Tim Peake has spent time on the International Space Station - and wrongly picked up the label as the first Brit in space.

Some 32 years later, Helen's out-of-this-world achievements seem to have been overlooked by some.

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The SKY History channel wonders whether that may be partly to do with her being a woman.

Helen SharmanHelen Sharman
Helen Sharman

"Helen Sharman is no longer a household name" they state.

"It’s also fair to assume the overwhelming majority of Brits today think of Tim Peake as the first astronaut from these shores."

The channel's website says Helen did not crave the headlines and "deliberately withdrew from the media glare.

"Fame wasn’t what she ever wanted – especially not the gossipy, tabloid-style fame that seemed to take her achievements less seriously because she happened to be a woman.

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Helen Sharman in The StarHelen Sharman in The Star
Helen Sharman in The Star

"The prevailing sexism of early 90s media meant one newspaper even compared her with sci-fi sex siren Barbarella, scolding her for not wearing enough make-up on Mir."

When Peake, now 51, returned to Earth in June, 2016, his profile was huge and remains so to this day.

On the other hand, says Sky, Helen had "consciously re-embraced life as a mere mortal, and the sheer amount of time that passed between her voyage and Tim Peake’s meant that, by the time his mission came, history seemed to have been rebooted.

"Yet the importance of Helen Sharman is undeniable – both as a Briton and as an inspiring figure to other women entering the traditionally male-dominated sphere of aeronautics and space travel."

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Helen Sharman and Michael Palin meet the QueenHelen Sharman and Michael Palin meet the Queen
Helen Sharman and Michael Palin meet the Queen

Helen, herself, has exonerated both Tim and the British press over the mistakes made about Peake's so-called status as space's first UK flyer.

In a recently-filmed interview hosted by The Royal Society, the UK's national academy of sciences, the first Western European woman in space was asked why her history-making adventure was overlooked.

"It wasn't Tim's fault, it wasn't the media's fault, it was the UK Space Agency, who actually told media that Tim Peake was the firt British astronaut" she revealed.

"That was a bit of a naughty thing to do, putting it mildly!"

The video has been seen 8,000 times on YouTube.

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Interestingly, Helen said the Soviet system, in which she worked as a cosmonaut in the 90s, had been "way in advance of people in western Europe" in the way they employed women in senior positions in transport and industry as well as the space race.

Helen Sharman's space suitHelen Sharman's space suit
Helen Sharman's space suit

One viewer responded on YouTube: "I have been aware of Helen’s achievements since 1991 and was very critical of the ‘media’ output when Tim Peake was described as the ‘first’ Briton in space, so much so I resented him!

"I found it very interesting in the interview Helen explains that it wasn’t the media’s fault, nor Tim Peake’s fault that she wasn’t given very much credit (not that she sought it) for being the first Briton in space.

"Dr Sharman holds two accolades is space, the FIRST Briton in space, and, the FIRST female Briton in space.

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"Let us not forget the achievements of people who make it safer for others in the future."

Helen, an Honorary Fellow at Hallam University who was also awarded an Honorary Doctor of Science degree at the University of Sheffield, continues to spread the word about science.

The Outreach Ambassador at Imperial College London has recently committed to giving a series of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics' talks in Shrewsbury schools.

Put simply, Helen Sharman was a star in the 1990s - and to the next generation of school children she's a star now,