Helen Sharman: the first UK astronaut

Helen Sharman, the first British astronaut, reveals all about her journey into orbit alongside a team of Russian cosmonauts...
06 October 2015

Interview with 

Helen Sharman, Imperial College London


Clearly being an astronaut is no picnic, with vomit-inducing G forces to contend with and demanding psychological challenges. So why does anyone do it? In 1991, Helen Sharman became the first British astronaut when she flew to the Mir Space station with Russian Cosmonauts. Connie Orbach went to meet her and find out what enticed her into such a demanding career...

Helen - I started off wanting to be a nurse because my mum was a nurse and then I thought it would be nice to do something a bit more mechanical engineering kind of but I didn't really know what to call mechanical engineering. I just wanted to work with machines. And then I didn't know what I wanted to do and then I wanted to be a doctor. So, I chopped and changed and I really wasn't sure, but I always knew that it had to be something that involved science, something logical, something perhaps constructive. But science engineering, it was always somehow in there.

Connie - So, how did you go from that to being an astronaut?

Helen - I decided, as I didn't know what I wanted to do and I had to make a decision of sorts, that at 18, I would go off to universities to do chemistry because with chemistry, I could go physical or I could go biological, lots of different things you can do with chemistry. As I was unsure, it seemed like I keep my options open kind of thing to do. And then at the end of my chemistry degree, I knew I wanted...

Connie - From university, Helen continued exploring the world of science in London where she first worked at an electronics factory and then at Mars confectionary as a research technologist working on ice cream and chocolate.

Helen - Until I just heard an opportunity as I was driving home from work listening to the car radio, and then there was an advert that came on, "astronaut wanted". This job advert just described an opportunity that I had never even considered. If I'm honest, I applied not so much to go into space, but I applied to do the training because what other job would give you the ability to use your science, learn about the technology of spacecraft, and so on, live in another country, speak Russian, and to do some physical training - all part of the same job. Wow! You know, this the job for me. So, I applied for the job and yes of course, I wanted to go into space but I would've gone for the job even if I knew the space wasn't going to be at the end of it.

Connie - What sort of training did you have to go through before you could go to space?

Helen - I first had to learn Russian because all the training was being done in Russian and also of course, on a Russian speaking space station, if you have an emergency situation, the last thing you need to be doing is getting out your dictionary to wonder what the commander is telling you to do and then some theoretical training. So, we learned about the theory of flight and ballistics astro navigation. Gradually, it got more and more practical - things like parachute jumps, in order to do the weightless training called the "vomit comet" - up and down in a series of loops. But while the aircraft is falling, you're falling inside the aircraft. So, you're just in free fall which is what weightlessness is about. You're not truly weightless. You have weight. You're still being pulled down by the Earth's gravity, but you don't feel it.

Connie - That must've been amazing.

Helen - It is. I mean, everybody agrees it's the best bit of all the training. Everybody looks forward to it. We get to do it 4 times and each time, there are 10 loops.

Connie - you better hope you don't get too seasick.

Helen - A lot of people get sick which is why it's called the "vomit comet" and it's the type of people who were typically motion sick on Earth. If you tend to be travel sick, you tend to be sick in the "vomit comet" and you also tend to be sick when you get into space. So, it's actually quite a good selector in some respects as well.

Connie - So, when you've done all these training, when you finally went up there to do this work, how was it? Did it live up to the expectations?

Helen - It was exactly as the training has taught me. The actual feeling though, you can never really duplicate on Earth. It takes your body really two days or so to adjust to feeling weightless because the fluid shift Now the fluids in your body tend to move towards your head to start with because your heart is still pumping towards your head because your heart thinks, "I've got to pump up to keep all these blood pressure in the brain to stop the poor person from fainting." But you don't need that so much in space so your brain tells your kidneys to excrete extra urine and you then feel much better. But still, your body is continuing to adapt even though you don't then notice it. So, you continue to lose calcium from the bones and potassium from the muscles. But no, after 2 days, it felt great and I felt as though I wanted to be up much longer. I always reckon about 3 months.

Connie - Helen's mission was only 8 days, so much shorter than most of today's astronauts who usually go for around 6 months. Are there different skills required for this modern-day long term space travel?

Helen - The difference nowadays to the early astronauts is that nowadays, people need to be team players whereas in the early days, they were sort of the real right stuff, the fighter pilots, highly reactive people, and they needed to be. They tended not to make good team players. They wouldn't make good modern astronauts and probably, modern astronauts wouldn't make good sort of right stuff fighter pilot type of the originals where they really did have to - they were the brave ones. They were the real explorers and we were - I'm often called an explorer, but I don't think of myself as such. I explored but I went into parts of space where other people had been. I went to a spacecraft where other people had been.

Connie - If today's astronauts aren't intrepid explorers but patient team players it all sounds a little less exciting. Does anyone even want to be an astronaut anymore? I popped out onto the streets of London to see what the kids of today want to be when they grow up...

Child 1 - Hello.

Connie - What would you like to be when you grow up?

Child 1 - A teacher.

Child 2 - Police.

Child 3 - Right now I'm thinking an engineer.

Child 4 - Cafe lady.

Child 5 - I would like to be...an acrobat.

Child 6 - A train.

Child 7 - Astronaut.

Child 8 - I'm not sure though I think I might want to be a vet.

Connie - So not the most scientific test but it doesn't seem like astronaut is most people's first choice, what about Helen Sharman, if she could do it again, would she?

Helen - Everybody wants to go back into space, I have not met a single astronaut who would not return, however old they are.Yeah, everybody would return to space.


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