25 October 2016Last updated

Features | People

Dr Helen Sharman: Space missions turn people on to science

This month 25 years ago Dr Helen Sharman became the first Briton to blast off into space. She tells Colin Drury what made her apply for the job, how it changed her life and why now, at age 52, she wouldn’t mind repeating her feat

By Colin Drury
20 May 2016 | 12:00 am
  • Source:Alamy

The only time Dr Helen Sharman says she felt slightly apprehensive was when there was an electrical fault and the lights went out.

She had just become, aged 27, the 15th woman, the very first Briton and, to date, the sixth-youngest person to journey into space.

On her second day on board the Soviet Union orbiting station Mir, the generators died. Some 320km above earth, she and 
her four colleagues were plunged into the complete and total darkness of space. Although it lasted barely a couple of minutes, she still remembers it.

‘You can’t imagine how black it is, its thickness,’ she says. ‘You couldn’t see your hand in front of your face. We’d just 
sit there, waiting in the dark. That was a little… disconcerting.’


The UAE’s own space adventure, to send an unmanned probe to Mars in 2020, continues apace.

As the UAE’s own space adventure – a mission to send an unmanned probe to Mars in 2020 – continues apace, Dr Sharman may well be one of those pioneers the team is inspired by. Exactly 25 years ago her incredible journey dragged the UK into the space age.

Her eight-day mission, which saw her undertake medical and agricultural experiments aboard Mir, briefly transformed her home country into one fascinated by the universe.

Roads and schools were named after her; museums had exhibitions dedicated to her achievement; and in her home city of Sheffield, a star was put in the road. She was also made an OBE in 1993.

If Hope – the UAE’s probe – is a success, similar honours seem almost certain to be conferred on the 150-strong men and 
women who make up the Emirates Mars Mission team.

‘Any woman – anyone at all actually – working in the field of space exploration is worthy of admiration,’ says Dr Sharman of that particular mission. ‘It’s imperative that we, as humans, develop our knowledge to better understand our position in the universe.’

Now aged 52 and still remarkably recognisable as the woman pictured before blasting into orbit on May 18, 1991, she is operations manager of Imperial College London’s (ICL’s) chemistry department.

We meet in her office there. For 10 years in the noughties she declined all interviews in an attempt to regain some privacy, and, as a result, many students here have no idea that among the staff is one of only 59 women to go to space.


Dr Sharman says that while everything was scheduled to the minute, her favourite part of the journey was the view that you ‘couldn’t get tired of’.

Dr Sharman’s incredible journey started with a radio advert. She had achieved a PhD from Birkbeck, University of London and was working for Mars confectionery as a research chemist at the time.

Driving home from work one day in 1989, she heard an advert for Project Juno, a politically motivated space programme to further good relations between London and communist Moscow by sending a single British astronaut up with a Soviet Union mission. Four years earlier, a similar Soviet programme had been hailed a success when the Syrian Muhammed Faris had joined a mission to become the second Arab astronaut. (Sultan Bin Salman Al Saud, a member of the Saudi royal family, had previously flown with an American mission).

No Briton had been to space previously, but the commercial’s tagline was simple: astronaut wanted, no experience necessary.

‘I knew as soon as I heard it I was going to apply,’ remembers Dr Sharman. ‘But it wasn’t so much to go into space as the training that appealed. Living in Russia, learning the language, doing advanced mechanics. And being paid for it all? What wasn’t to like? It was a way out of the rat race.’

Some 13,000 people felt the same. That’s how many applied for the posting.

A combination of physical examinations, medicals, psychological tests and aptitude analysis sifted the number down to four.

This quartet then appeared on a live TV show – filmed at London’s world-renowned Science Museum – where it was announced which two would go to Moscow to train and have a chance of going to space.

‘I was thrilled when I was chosen but glad when the show was over,’ says Dr Sharman. ‘None of us were that comfy being on TV.’

Even in Russia, she never truly expected to go to space. The other Briton picked for training was an army helicopter pilot called Tim Mace who seemed vastly better qualified.

‘During our training, it was always an unsaid assumption – certainly on my part – that Tim would go and I would be his second,’ she remembers. ‘I can only surmise why me. 
I was physically fit, good in a team and not too excitable, which was important. You can’t have people losing it in space. I think it was just my normality.’

She was, she says, never nervous.


Dr Sharman meets the Queen.

Nasa, today, is said to tell astronauts there is roughly a one in 65 chance they might not make it back to earth. And, while such odds were never communicated to Dr Sharman, she says she was aware of the risks but unfazed by them. ‘I absolutely trusted the people who were working on the mission,’ she says. ‘I simply didn’t believe anything would go wrong. But, if it did, I had no dependants; if I died, I was happy it would be doing something exciting.’

Take-off went smoothly and once docked at Mir, Dr Sharman was worked hard. ‘Everything was scheduled to the minute,’ she explains. ‘At 10.12am do this; 10.47am work on that. It costs a lot to get you up there and they want their money’s worth.’

In their spare time, the five crew would eat, talk and – of course – look outside.

‘There was a big window at the bottom of the station and, at the end of the day, we would sit there and look out,’ she remembers. ‘You couldn’t get tired of that view.’

Unlike today’s missions, the ship wasn’t in constant contact with ground control. For only a few hours a day were they in touch with earth. ‘It was rather peaceful, actually,’ she says. By night, she slept tied into a sleeping bag, attached to a wall. ‘In relation to the station, I was vertical but you’re in space so it doesn’t matter which way you are. There was one guy who slept on the ceiling.’

Each morning they were woken by an alarm clock that rang with the same sound as the emergency alarm. ‘You’d wake up unsure if it was time to get up or you were leaking oxygen,’ says Dr Sharman. ‘It got us out of our sleeping bags pretty quick, though.’


Apart from those power outages – which happened three or four times during her stay – the only other time she felt uncomfortable was on returning to earth. ‘When you’re landing, coming back into orbit, there’s a violence that you’re not prepared for,’ she says. ‘But you sort of expect it. I never felt anything was going wrong.’

Her first words on being pulled from the craft after landing in Kazakhstan were typical of her natural exuberance – and perhaps of someone who has just spent eight days in a sealed tin can: ‘smell the flowers,’ she said, ‘they are wonderful.’

Not all astronauts are so positive upon their return to earth. Many – including, famously, Neil Armstrong – have struggled to adjust following time among the stars.

‘I’ve never felt empty afterwards,’ says Dr Sharman. ‘There’s this suggestion nothing can match going to space – and I’m not saying it isn’t fantastic – but there are equally enjoyable things on earth. For me, standing on a hill in the Lake District [in the UK] and looking out at fields is just as special.’

Now, she’s looking forward to the celebrations to mark her quarter-century anniversary.

On May 18, the single biggest gathering of astronauts ever on UK soil came together at ICL to toast the date, along with the safe return of Major Peake – currently still in space – who arrives back a month later.

She, personally, used the celebration as a chance to speak on the need for greater global funding of space exploration – something the UAE is certainly among the front runners in.

‘It’s about understanding the universe and how, one day, humans can survive off this planet,’ she says. ‘It’s expensive but it’s important. And it’s good value. Space missions capture the imagination. It turns people on to science.’

As for Dr Sharman herself, if she was younger, she’d love to go back. She thinks manned missions will reach Mars by the mid-2030s and she would give anything to be part of such a mission.

‘If I was younger I’d go up in an instant,’ she says. ‘I’d still love to go back.’

By Colin Drury

By Colin Drury