Helen Sharman: launching into space

What is it like to be launched into space?
05 September 2023

Interview with 

Helen Sharman


Aerial shot of Atlantis shuttle


Chris - So what happens during the actual launch? That must be very exhilarating, I would think.

Helen - The launch itself, of course is the first time that you've actually felt it. So we've done the centrifuge to experience G Force, but you've not actually felt it and heard it and felt the bumps. So that's, I think, what surprised me. And of course I'd seen the profile in the training of acceleration versus time. So I knew that two rocket stages would ignite simultaneously, that they would take us up to sort of just over 4G, 4.5G then the outside boosters would drop and we'd have a drop in G down to about a couple of G

Chris - 4G is quite a lot.

Helen - Yeah, 4, 4.5G Really maximum during the launch. But we'd done 8G in the centrifuge and I think most people can cope with 4, but it's not in the head to foot direction. So blood is not pulled away from your head. If you imagine you're sort of sitting but on your back. So with your knees pointing up towards the uppermost part of the spacecraft. So all that's happened is that you're pushed back into your seat. So you're, if you like, pushed down and back. So yes, your chest feels a bit heavier, so it's a bit more difficult to breathe, but your diaphragm's quite strong. Your arm of course is four and a half times as heavy as it was before. So you know, you've probably got that sort of 8, 10 kilos worth of arm to lift up during that stage. So pushing buttons on the control panel is just a bit more physically hard. But you know, you can lift eight kilos with one arm, normally on Earth and so you're just lifting the weight of your own arm in that regard. So yeah, it's something that we were trained to do, but I think it was that lumpiness and the bumpiness and of course you can feel the rocket and it creaks a bit during the launch and just as it leaves the launch pad it was quite windy and because you just got enough thrust to leave the ground so you could feel it moving around a bit and just feel a bit weird. But I never once felt as though it was going to go wrong at that stage. Although I knew what I had to do in case it did and I think that was the other reason why it feels so comfortable, because there are all of these backup plans. If not plan A, then you know it's going to be plan B and you know what you have to do in that situation and what the commander will be doing and what the engineer will be doing. And you just fit into it. Yeah. And the whole launch is over in, it's less than nine minutes, 530 seconds, just under.

Chris - And how high does that put you? A few hundred kilometres up?

Helen - Yeah, that puts us about 200, between 200, 250 kilometres above the Earth's surface. It's not as high as the Mir space station, but that's the orbit that the rocket sends us in. And then we've got rocket engines on our spacecraft that we then use. And back then we used a two day approach profile. Nowadays we can do it in sort of six hours, a bit less. I think the fastest has been about four hours these days, but the backup even now is two days. So yeah, we did it in two days, gradually increasing the height of that orbit, catching up with the space station.

Chris - And how do you then couple up?

Helen - So then, ideally automatically. You have your rocket engines that fire and you almost get to the same speed and the same place as a space station and they would just naturally, the navigation systems guide us to the docking port. So we have, if you like, a cone sticking out of the front of our spacecraft and a bit of a sort of a hole <laugh> on the space station with an airlock on the inside. And so we aim to put our cone inside that hole and then clips and springs will sort of clamp us on. Now we had a problem because we realised the navigation system wasn't working properly on our final approach and we were around the backside of Earth to mission control. And back then when I flew in '91, you only had connection with mission control when you had direct line of sight with the radio. So for two thirds of the orbit, we were around the back of the Earth, right? We were very happy not having to have mission control jabbering into us at that time. We were fine with it, we knew that was going to be the case, but it was around that time when we realised we couldn't rely on that automatic system. So then as a crew, we had to decide that we would, rather than abort the mission, we were ready to go ahead with something we'd done in the training, but of course never actually practised. And not only was I a rookie, but my commander was a rookie as well. So the engineer had been into space once before, but it was the commander who actually had the rocket controls. So I had a periscope television camera to operate. Commander could actually physically see where he was going because of course we're inside the spacecraft and you can't actually look straight forward, right? Because we've got this big metal cone that we need to use as part of the docking operators. So he was using this camera on the outside of the spacecraft and the engineer was working out what information we knew was correct, and verbally feeding those numbers to the commander. And then he just had his little controls, a bit like a joystick on a computer game. Up a bit, down a bit, left a bit right a bit. And rocket engines just steered us in towards that docking port. And that's how we docked on it. Now we knew what we were doing. And although I know that we were a bit nervous because mission control was looking at our heart rates. We've got heart monitors on at the time. But the poor people who were already on board the space station, I mean, they'd been up for six months and they were so looking forward to us arriving. Now imagine six months on a space station where your only connection with the ground is radio for one third of your orbits, let's say for 30 minutes out of every 90 minutes or so. Occasionally if you're lucky, you've got a television connection to mission control so your family can go in, you might be able to see them. But most of the time you've just got this radio. So they were so looking forward to us arriving and then suddenly there was this manual docking and 'oh my goodness, they might have to abort.' You can abort once, have a second, get enough fuel to have two attempts at this manual docking, and then you have to abort and go back to ground. So of course they were delighted we'd made it in one piece. And yeah, that elation, when we did eventually check the seals, no air was leaking. We could open that hatch and just float into the main module. I mean, it was just fantastic. Bear hugs all round. Just jubilation, I don't ever remember feeling something quite as full of elation as that before.


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