Helen Sharman: chatting with Mikhail Gorbachev

What was life like in Star City?
05 September 2023

Interview with 

Helen Sharman

Helen Sharman 1991 1MB.jpg

Helen Sharman


Chris - How was this going down with the chocolate factory?

Helen - They were very good actually at Mars. They were delighted. They got loads of free publicity out of it, of course. And they did offer me a job at the end of it. But I did have to resign from my job at Mars in order to go full-time. You know, I was basically living in Star City, this military base, Northeastern Moscow,.completely different lifestyle. So it is really fascinating, for that alone. Because I've always loved languages and exploring different cultures. For me the training was always going to be as exciting as going into space really. I applied to do the training. If I'm honest, I didn't know anything about space flight, but I could imagine learning to speak Russian fluently. I'd never had that opportunity in my life before. I could imagine living in a different country, you know, but I could never have imagined a Soviet military base, barbed wire around concrete walls on the perimeters, soldiers with guns at the entrances to all the buildings. But what a fascinating place to be, become part of and to make friends in and to understand how they operated, how they engineered thing s like teamwork. Completely different to the culture that I had come from in 1980s Britain where everything was so commercial and here was a country that was really into the long term, completely different environment and loved it.

Chris - I was doing my run up to my GCSEs when all this was happening to you. And we should give people some context, it was around the time this was happening to you that the Berlin War was going to come down. So there was this thawing of relations between the west and the Soviet Union as it was then. So you were very much part of that, that was a pretty special time because people were becoming a lot closer. There was more of this collaboration, wasn't there?

Helen - That's absolutely right. So the Berlin Wall had just fallen a few days before I arrived in Star City to do my training. But no, it was very much a reaching out, really my mission was part of it in a way. So Gorbachev then president of the Soviet Union was reaching out to some western countries and had asked his space agency, the Soviet Space Agency to reach out to some western countries to send one of their, say, an astronaut into space on a Soviet space mission. Very much a sort of a repeat of the early 1980s into Cosmos, Syria, when a lot of the Soviet friendly countries had astronauts going into space with the Soviets. Now this was the time for the western countries and Gorbachev very much wanted that to be part of his glasnost, really. His openness.

Chris - Did you meet him?

Helen - I didn't meet him in person, but I did have a telephone conversation with him from space. Yeah, I arrived on the space station. Bit of a problem docking, but we just got in there and did our bear hugs and greeted the two cosmonauts that had been up there already for six months. And then mission control says, oh by the way, we have somebody who would like to speak to you. Helen, he's going to speak to you first. This is President Gorbachev. I think, 'oh my goodness, if you had only warned me, I would've thought of something very erudite in Russian to have said to the president of the country that's sending me into space.' But I mean, all I could think of was saying something like an honour that you've called us. Thank you very much, and how wonderful it is that we can do this international collaboration and of course the laws of physics and science work the same in both countries, so isn't it great? And it was all about sort of making a bit light of the situation in a way. And that's all he wanted. He had a lovely chat. I mean I've subsequently seen the transcript of it and it was just to mark the fact that this was a British space mission. He did it for no other reason. He didn't need to say anything, but he was all 'oh ho ho ho, I think my dinner will be much better in the Kremlin than yours will be on the Space station.' <laugh>. 'I'm certainly much more comfortable, I'm sure, but so nice to see that you've got there. What are you going to be doing this evening then?' Just general chat. It was, you know, such an honour and yeah, a delight. So, never met the man, but I feel like I have <laugh>,

Chris - We're getting slightly ahead of ourselves because we've already gone into space. But talking of talking back to Earth, you ended up chatting with a bunch of school kids because didn't you end up on Blue Peter and that kind of thing? You did an amateur radio chat with some school children in the UK when you were up there, didn't you?

Helen - I don't think I ever actually got onto Blue Peter. Would've obviously said yes straight away. But, I did an experiment. The Radio Society of Great Britain had set me up with an amateur radio call sign. So I was able to contact British schools through the Radio Society of Great Britain and they'd set up sort of lessons where students could understand about orbits and work on contacting the space station. So I did speak directly with some school children through amateur radio. So yeah, a great honour. And I did Newsround and some other TV interviews.

Chris - I'm sure I saw coverage of this. I mean it was huge when it happened to you it was huge. It was all over the kids' media. It definitely was inspirational for the young people. What else did they teach you, obviously apart from Russian, before you were able to go aloft? What was the training? What did it comprise?

Helen - They'd split it up into a theoretical stage where we started out on real sort of basics. Um, so, you know, I mentioned ballistics and astral navigation, but we would talk about the electrical communication systems onboard the space station, the life support systems, some space flight medicine for instance. So it gradually got a little bit more practically oriented, but it did start very theoretical. But yeah, they gradually sort of built it up. We then do some simulator work. For me the best it's always our practicals. So I like the stuff in the simulator. I love all the emergency training. So we had to get rescued from the Black Sea to simulate how we would be rescued and to work of course with the divers and the other rescue crew. So they were doing their practising as well, their training on us as trainee cosmonauts. So that's how it works, you know. And the best bit actually, I think all cosmonauts agree, the best bit is the weightless training where you get a few seconds, usually just just over 20 seconds at a time, in the vomit comet. The Americans have named it thus, for obvious reasons. So it flies a series of parabolic loops and as the pilot lets the aircraft just fly down one side of the parabola as it plummets to earth, because you are falling inside the falling aircraft just for that few seconds of being in free fall, you feel weightless. And of course after 23 seconds or so, the pilot has to make the aircraft pull out of this loop because otherwise you'll hit the ground. And then you can do another loop and another and another. And yes, it's those series of 20 odd seconds at a time, which is how we can practise moving around feeling weightless. Yeah, the, the best bit of all the training. It's not, of course your body doesn't react in the same way 'cause you don't get to feel weightless for very long stretches at a time, but it gives you a good idea how to be safe and how to move around the space station.


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