Helen Sharman: how to get a job as an astronaut

From humble beginnings...
05 September 2023

Interview with 

Helen Sharman


Astronaut in Space


Chris - Helen Sharman was born in Sheffield on the 30th of May, 1963. She's wincing. She was not only the first British person in space, she was the first Western European woman to go there. She was also the first woman to visit the Mir Space Station. She attended Grenoside Junior and Infant School, then Jordanthorpe comprehensive in Sheffield. She got a BSC degree in chemistry at the University of Sheffield in 1984. And then started a PhD at Birkbeck in London, looking at why certain rare earth elements produce a kind of blue light, but was then seduced by space and departed without finishing her PhD. She responded to a radio advertisement asking for applications to be the first British space Explorer. And Helen Charman was selected for the mission ahead of nearly 13,000 other applicants. She became the first British astronaut on the 18th of May, 1991. She published her autobiography, 'Seize the Moment' in 1993. And in 1997 published a children's book, the Space Place. And she has presented radio and television programs, including for BBC Schools. And she encourages youngsters to pursue careers in science. And we are sitting in the delightful surroundings alongside the river Cam in Cambridge, and you've come to tell me about your career. Helen. Take us back then to the early years. Were you always destined to fly in space? I mean, how did this get started?

Helen - Oh goodness. As a child I would never have imagined going to space. I was brought up to basically keep my head down, do normal stuff. We don't do anything particularly exciting, particularly different in our family or in our school. You know, we went to a very normal school in the north of Sheffield. Then we moved house to the south of Sheffield. But still it was all very, nobody from my school had ever done anything like that. And anyway, Britain didn't have a space agency, let alone a human space flight program. So no, going into space, it wasn't even a pipe dream, it just wasn't, right? It just wasn't possible. And I only chose to study sciences because I was keeping my options open. I fancied the idea of manufacturing, although my family didn't know anything about manufacturing. You know, they were teachers, they were nurses, nothing to do with manufacturing. And so I didn't really know what you had to do to be in manufacturing. I just kind of liked the idea that we could convert stuff into other stuff that could be quite useful. <laugh>. So off I went to university to study chemistry. I mean, honestly, it could have been any science or engineering and you know, I just chose chemistry because it was kind of a middle of the roadie kind of science. And if I fancy going biological later, I could. If I fancy going physical, I could. And that's how my science career started, just to keep my options open. And then towards the end of the degree, looking for what job to do. And it was in those days, pre-internet. Can we ever imagine those days now? But yes, pre-internet, when you used to go along to the university careers office and hunt through files and files of paper application forms. And I think I found every application form that said they wanted a graduate chemist and applied because I didn't know what there was out there. And I got a choice of jobs. I think I had six, eight jobs, something like that, in the end to choose from. So really great opportunities and ended up in the electronics industry making display screens. And that was where I started my part-time PhD. So yeah, it's kind of always done on a part-time basis. And then after a few years making display screens, I loved that but it was time to move on. And then I moved to the confectionery industry. I worked for Mars confectionery, actually.

Chris - It's appropriate that a space woman worked for Mars.

Helen - As soon as the newspapers found out, you know, 'a girl from Mars goes to the stars', 'Helen blasts off from one Milky Way' and there were puns on galaxies. Oh, you can just imagine. Worse and worse. But yeah, I was enjoying my job. I worked on ice cream, chocolate, you know, loads of science of course. And at school I could never have imagined using science in the electronics industry, but also to make chocolate. You know you just make chocolate, don't you? But you know, the science and the engineering, the technology required to make confectionery at scale at a cost that is reasonable so people can afford to buy it. And, all of that was just fascinating. I loved it.

Chris - Were you doing the chocolate bar job then when you saw the ad to become an astronaut?

Helen - Yes. I was actually just driving home from work one evening. I could say I was driving home from Mars, but that's a bit of pushing the pun a bit too far. <laugh>. but not driving home from work, listening to the radio and again, pre-internet. So how did we find out about jobs? Well, they were in the newspapers, they were in journals and sometimes they were advertised on the radio and, hey presto, there on my car, radio was 'astronaut wanted. No experience necessary.' And my ears pricked up and it described this amazing opportunity. They wanted somebody from Britain to go to the Soviet Union and train with the cosmonauts and do experiments on board the Mir space station. And I just applied for the job. Like you applied for any other job really?

Chris - What did you have to send in?

Helen - You had to, first of all, phone in. There was some sort of call centre and they asked some very basic conversations, questions about, did you have some languages? They wanted us to have some manual dexterity and to still have a practical job. So they were asking questions about what I did for my job and when they ascertained that I was a reasonable candidate, then they sent me an application form and that was the standard few pages where you have to fill in the questions but actually then you have that blank page at the end, 'why you should choose me.' And you know, I was so certain that they'd never choose me. I never photocopied that application form. So to this day, I don't know what I wrote about that.

Chris - You can't remember what you wrote?

Helen - I don't know <laugh>

Chris - You must've written something good.

Helen - I must've been truthful. I do remember thinking I could big myself up here, but then they'll find me out, won't they? And I don't know what they're looking for. I really didn't know. So throughout the application and then the psychological tests and everything, I decided that I couldn't sort of second guess everything. I would just enjoy the process. I would be as honest and open as I could and just sort of learn as much as I could from just being part of it.

Chris - What happened next? Did a letter drop through the letterbox? Is that what happened?

Helen - So they may well have telephoned me and left a message on my home answer machine because it was even pre-mobile days. You know, it's just quite incredible to think how we used to communicate then. And that would be when I would've been asked to go for the first part, medical, psychological tests. And then gradually they whittled us down so that there were 16 of us going to be whizzed around in a room in a centrifuge to look at how we could cope with the acceleration G-force during launch and so on. And some of the more space flight specific medicals, motion sickness for instance. And they didn't want us to be motion sick, so they try to choose people who are not generally motion sick on earth. So there were those sorts of tests. And yeah, gradually then there were four of us left. We went off to a Moscow hospital for two weeks. And then I remember it being one awful evening, live national TV where it was announced which two of us were actually going to be going to Russia and doing the training and which two would remain in Britain as sort of backups. But two of us. So, you know, I didn't know was I going into space or was I going to be the backup? And of course I always assumed I would be the backup. You know, the guy who was the army pilot. Blonde hair, blue eyes, <laugh>, he was bound to fly. The woman from the chocolate factory, she'd be the backup, wouldn't she? This is the trouble with coming from that kind of the idea that it would never be me and lacking confidence as a youngster. It took me a long time to get over that, that imposter syndrome I think took a while to get over.


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