Helen Sharman: legacy of a cosmonaut

What happened after Helen returned from space?
12 September 2023

Interview with 

Helen Sharman


Helen Sharman


Chris - And the legacy has been huge because the fact that you are sitting talking to me, the fact I've seen you on television and I've seen the stories that you've spawned, I think the British taxpayer, had they paid for it, would've had a very sound investment. But the company that funded it and the Soviets certainly spent their money well, in my view.

Helen - Well, thank you. I'd like to think that, I've sort of certainly put back, but I really did feel as though I should at least let people know what had happened. And back in 1991, it was really a lot about talking and doing interviews, but the internet wasn't there and, perhaps publishing a book, which is what I did. But I felt as though it was a British mission. It wasn't just mine. And I'd had all that joy of it and all those experiences, and I felt as though I should share that. But what I didn't expect was part of me feeling I should share it. I was going on a tour of British schools and so I didn't just talk to young people and I talked to all sorts of different groups of people, but the school's tour was quite changing for me because the school students, especially the young ones, give you immediate feedback. So if you're not really holding their attention the whole time, you know immediately. So they really taught me how to give a talk. The teachers were great. They told me a bit about the curriculum and how to actually talk with young people and how to come across better, how to lower the tone of your voice a bit, not to talk in such a high pitched voice because it's much easier on your own voice apart from anything else. The science advisors as they were then were absolutely brilliant about giving me hints and tips about how to use aspects of space flight to communicate science. And I've just got all of those people to thank, because that made me realise that this wasn't just a space mission. This was a great way of communicating science to young people who so loved thinking about space and people who might not otherwise have thought about science. And back in the 1990s, it was before Naked Scientists were ever doing their stuff. And it was difficult I think for many people unless they were involved in the science sort of field somewhere to actually find out about science. So I determined that that was a good thing for me to do and it would put my space light to good use as well, would be to become a science communicator. So thank you. If you are one of those teachers listening in, if you are perhaps one of those students who gave me that immediate feedback or one of those science advisors, really thank you.

Chris - Was it not tricky though, because you were in your twenties when you did all this, and to have done that at that age, to then have your feet back on the ground and live a normal life, is that not really difficult? Because you talk to some politicians, you talk to other people who've done really high powered things, really special things, and they say that it's really difficult to feel grounded after that.

Helen - Oh, grounded, that's a good pun, isn't it? <laugh>. But I think for me, being an astronaut became just part of my life. And although it was weird to start with feeling somehow, because I was very well known, so going around the shops would take me half an hour to buy a tin of beans <laugh> because people would find me and ask me what it was like. And that was lovely in many respects because it showed how interested people were with that mission, and made me more and more keen to talk about it, I suppose. But I needed to get a job. I needed to pay the rent, I had bills. It wasn't as though I was suddenly a wealthy millionaire or anything. So I did have to find something, not just that I wanted to do, but find an income as well. So there was some basic stuff that I had to get going in life. And perhaps that's what kept it all there. And my friends very quickly found out. Your friends, the good friends, are your friends and they will support you through thick and thin. I felt sorry for them and my family members sometimes when we might have been a bit intruded upon by some people, but people were doing it with the best of intentions. And it is lovely when people do that. And so I think I've managed to live a life whereby I've managed to keep that notoriety just enough. So we can come here in Cambridge and I can walk down this lovely public footpath and nobody recognises me. In context, they might do. And if I'm sitting next to a spacecraft or something, or if I go to a science museum, then maybe they would, but I can be in public and, by and large, I can just be me with my friends, with my family, that's great. But if I do want to talk about space, if I do want to do a bit of that science communication, that's also there too. So yeah, I've tried to manage it and keep that balance.

Chris - Last question, often if you ask astronauts, they'll tell you they take sneaky things into space. Did you sneak anything into space?

Helen - What did I sneak? I mean, yes is the quick answer. All sorts of semi-official because of course you can't really sneak a corn beef sandwich anymore, as I think one very early astronaut did. What did I take that was just not special? I had 180 grams of personal luggage. Everything was there, so I didn't even have to take my toothbrush. So 180 grams, it should have been a couple of kilos, but we had to take a spare computer. So suddenly at the last minute he got reduced. But 180 grams, I took a little comic strip that a friend had given me as a paper comic strip and then brought it back and gave it to him. There was a small low value, but I'll call it a jewel, I suppose a crystal, that another friend had given me and I gave that back to her. So yes, they're basically personal items. My mum, many years before, had given me a safety pin, probably when I left home to become a student. You never know when a safety pin might become useful. And I took a safety pin in space. And so that was sort of for my mum, really a safety pin. Oh, you know, I've just remembered. I took my Swiss army knife. Now that probably was most of my 180 grams. And I took that, my commander said 'that might be really useful.' You'd think, why don't you take a knife into space? My goodness. But when I came back to Earth, he said, 'oh, do you mind leaving that behind <laugh>?' And he continued to use it and then he brought it back with him. So he's got that one now.


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