Helen Sharman: the lead up to the launch

What happens in the hours before a spaceflight launch?
05 September 2023

Interview with 

Helen Sharman


Chris - You must have been getting nervous for a number of reasons, because on the one hand it was, is all this going to be worth it? Am I going to get there? Are they going to pull the plug at the last minute? But were there not some political slash financial tensions around the funding for the mission as well?

Helen - Actually, the funding issue started quite early on. So because this was done before the UK had an interest in, well we had a space agency. At the time we didn't have an interest in human space flight, so we didn't fund human space flight. So a company was set up to manage this, not using taxpayers money but gaining sponsorship. It didn't gain the sponsorship that it needed. And even just a few months into the training, that was the case. And, then really from one day to the next, I didn't know whether the training would be pulled completely and I'd just be brought back to the UK or whether the mission was going ahead. We had to do the training, had to continue with it because there was no time for a hiatus. But, that was really the way it was. So yes, for many, many months until probably a few months before the launch, when it was finalised that the new agreement had been made with the Soviet Space Agency. I would fly Soviet experiments. I managed to take a few British ones, which was really sort of an addition. But basically they were Soviet experiments and that was the arrangement. So the nervousness was really more during the training and that was the time of uncertainty. Once that was finalised, honestly I never expected to go into space anyway. I was, as far as I was concerned, I was going to be the backup. But three months before the actual mission itself, it was decided I should be prime. And that's when I knew that, barring an exam failure or a physical failure, something like that, or I could get sick, I suppose, on the day of the launch. But barring that, then yes, it would actually be me. But then you're just sort of part of a conveyor belt really. The Soviets are brilliant at this. They've sent loads of people into space very reliably. I was nervous about going into space. It was more whether or not the mission would happen in the first place. <laugh>.

Chris - So the day arrives when it looks like it's going to happen. Did you get any sleep the night before?

Helen - A bit of sleep, but it was rather exciting, I have to admit. My bedroom, I kept the curtains open because there was a time when Saturn and Jupiter were very close to each other and I could see them in the sky. And so I kept the curtains open and I was sort of looking at the planets as they kind of almost aligned and watched them pass and just thoughts really for the next day and what was gonna happen. Yeah, finally that day was about to come. So yeah, it was just I suppose a very positive excitement.

Chris - You've not made any mention about any of the risks involved. Did you just put that to the back of your mind or was that lurking there and you just didn't think about it? Or you just thought, if I think it might happen...

Helen - If I'm honest, when I applied for the mission, when I applied to go into space at the beginning, I had no idea what the risks were. It was then three years after the Challenger accident. So I knew big stuff does happen and I knew that. But perhaps because I never expected to be chosen, I didn't really confront that. And then during the training, you become aware very much that the whole way that they work, not just the engineers engineering things for safety, but the teamwork, the fact that everybody's encouraged to call out, to contribute, to make sure that everybody continually improves, and we fix issues before they ever become a problem. All of that, you become part of that. You realise that everybody's in it to make sure that the crew gets into space safely and returns to earth safely. So I knew everybody would do their utmost, everybody was doing all of their jobs, even though I didn't know everybody. Because of course there were thousands of people involved in the human space flight programs. But no, it was just a comfortable situation. So yes, I knew that there were risks. There weren't that many people who ever flew into space. I think I was the 254th, 255th or something like that. So missions that also were quite varied, how can you compare Apollo with Soyuz or with Mercury? You can't really, and I was at least savvy enough to understand that. All I knew was that the risk had been minimised and that I was comfortable with.

Chris - Talk us through the day that you left the Earth.

Helen - Up quite early. My skin was washed in alcohol to try and sterilise it as best as possible. We had a final breakfast, so at last I was allowed to have what I wanted rather than a typical Russian breakfast of meatballs and potato and butter and so on. So I had my muesli and felt fantastic.

Chris - No vodka?

Helen - We did have, not vodka. We actually were encouraged to have a very small amount of champagne as a part of the breakfast. So it's kind of a couple of sips, but it's part of the Russian tradition. Absolutely. I mean the Americans would think that was awful, but it's part of the Russian tradition and Gagarin did it, it was good enough for Gargarin <laugh>, it's good enough for you, right? So yeah, but very much part of the process. We get taken in a bus and at that point, in fact before then, even on the way down to the launch site before quarantine, the prime crews are split from the backup crews. So there are separate buses, separate aircraft, wherever we go. So yes, we got on our separate buses to go to the place where we put on our space suits and pressure checked them. Then there was a final press conference. Nowadays they do that the day before, but then we had to do that just before we left the building. And a bus takes you to the launch pad itself. You have to stop off on route for the men at least to pee on the rear offside wheel because that's what Gagarin did before his flight. So if you don't, well, you never know what luck might <laugh> or bad luck might happen to you. So this is all part of the kind of these traditions, which is great actually. It's lovely to be part of that, except being female.

Chris - You didn't have to pee on the wheel.

Helen - I didn't have to. Well, the main thing is I didn't have to take off my space suit. I would've gladly peed on the wheel to be quite honest, you kno <laugh>, what privacy is there between a group of crew people in space, anyway? But no, I didn't have to, the main thing was that I would've had to remove my space suit and it had been pressure checked, so I didn't really didn't want to have to do that. So there we go. We do our wave goodbye on the steps of the rocket, and then a lift takes us up to the top. And actually that's the time when all of the press is gone, all of the, what I would call the hangers on, but the people, the nice people, the people, our doctors, the people, just making sure everything's going right. The military bigwigs and so on, they all then depart and go to the stand where they can watch the launch. And we settle down. We settle down into our little spacecraft, into our seats. It feels just like the simulator that we've spent hundreds of hours in before. And yeah, we just go through all the checks and it's about two and a half hours. If something's not quite right, I think one of our space suits wasn't seated properly on the helmet, so we had to re-pressure our space suits, but then that was fine the second time. So there's time for that to happen. But there's never a long period where you can just sort of sit back and relax. Maybe a few minutes, but that's the longest you get. And of course you've got to make sure that you're ready to do your bit and very much even more than then now each seat was necessary and each seat had jobs to do during that pre-launch and the launch checks as well. And we were feeding that back to mission control. So yeah, you feel part of it, very much part of the mission. It's not like you're a bystander or a watcher, it's great.

Chris - You're stuck in position for a long time. What happens when you need a wee?

Helen - <laugh>? You don't wee, basically. So, yes, I'm trying to think how long it was before we could actually take off our spacesuits. So from putting them on, it's probably a good hour or an hour and a half before we got into the spacecraft itself. And then two and a half hours before the launch. So we're talking already then two and a half plus an hour and a half. Four hours, and then a good hour and a half before you are in orbit and you know that you're safe in orbit and you can take off your spacesuits. So, yeah, you don't pee. I mean we have emergency toilet facilities, which are basically like a load of tampons shoved into a little container, really that you can just push that close to your body and pee into that if necessary, but not the nicest thing to have to do. So no, you just hold on <laugh>.

Chris - So you've got to have a good bladder.

Helen - Trust a doctor to ask that question <laugh>

Chris - Always intrigued me to be honest, because at the end of the day it's a function that everyone has to go through, but no one ever asked the question. So now I had the opportunity, I had to ask the medical question and I won't ask about number two, maybe later.


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