Helen Sharman: returning to Earth

What is involved in getting back down from space?
12 September 2023

Interview with 

Helen Sharman


Splash down


Chris - You must have been sad to leave. The enthusiasm that is pouring out from you, you can tell that you found that a wrench to come back.

Helen - It was really hard to come back to Earth, partly because I wanted to stay longer. I'd been in space for eight days and two of them on the Soyuz spacecraft, only six onboard the space station. So if you like, six really useful science days. So I would've loved to have done more. I was enjoying, physically enjoying it, um, feeling weightless. I adapted by then to feeling weightless. I wasn't feeling spacy. It was just a joy. And that conviviality, that feeling of being a kindred spirit with your crew mates, that teamwork was just fabulous. And I didn't want to leave behind my crew. So those two people that we'd worked so hard with the training and then, having such a tough time getting to the space station with, I had to say goodbye to them and leave them behind. And I thought I was saying goodbye for five months. In the end, one of them spent 10 months. Another story.

Chris - Was that Valeri Polyakov, who was there? Because a record was set on that space station, wasn't it? For the longest period in space continuously, 437 days, something like that.

Helen - Yeah. Incredible. Polyakov spent the longest time ever consecutively in space. He was a medic and he was determined to come back to earth fitter than when he went into space. Now he didn't, sadly, but he did prove that, you know, this really, really long term space flight is quite possible. But no, I flew with Sergei Krikalev and Art Sebarsky. Sergei became known as the last Soviet citizen because he did two missions back to back. It was a political thing in order to keep the Kazakhs happy. And Kazakhstan is where the launch and the landing site is. So in order to keep the Kazakhs happy, the Kazakh mission was brought forward alongside the Austrian mission. So an Austrian and a Kazakh flew into space with the commander, but there was no engineer to replace Sergei Krikalev who I flew with, he was my engineer. So he did two missions back to back and remained in space for 10 months instead of his five. So yes, when he came back to Earth, Russia was already a separate country from the Soviet Union. That was the timeline. But yeah, it was just a wrench to leave them behind. So yeah, hugs all round, but also tears all round. You know, just saying goodbye was really tough. But of course I'm looking forward to coming back to Earth as well. And the experiments continue, especially on the human body, getting back to Earth. So it was part of what I had to do and I knew it, but still tough.

Chris - Did you have to do any exercises and things because we are now very cognisant of the corrosive effect that the space environment has on our skeletons, on other aspects of our health. Was that known at the time? Were you doing all of that? Or was it judged that you were there for such a short period of time, that it really didn't matter.

Helen - Yeah, we did know that the human body degrades in space. Bone mass, muscle mass in particular, and others. And a lot of my experiments were based on our adaptation to space flight. I was taking blood samples, for instance, of myself and the crew. Just during those first few days was just one of many adaptations. But no, I was up for just such a short time that my body degradation was going to be minimal. So I didn't waste my time doing exercise. Although, in a way, it might have been quite fun to have worked the treadmill a bit. I like running on earth anyway. And I like cycling. Those are the two methods of exercise. Then though, we thought that it was having to stamp on that treadmill and do that in order to keep the bones strong, to stress the bones, we thought we had to do a big sort of impact of our heels on that treadmill. Whereas more recently we've discovered it's more this resistive exercise generally. So they do an equivalent of pushing weights, but in space. So it's sort of pushing against this resistive machine and of course you can strengthen all sorts of bones doing that. So whether you're doing bangs on earth, and that's really I think one of the, the big, big messages that space flight has given to all of us on earth, whatever age, whatever gender we are. If we keep on with this resistive exercise, we're stressing our bones by doing that. So you're strengthening your muscles, but you are indirectly strengthening your bones as well. You keep them strong. And then when we do start to lose bone mass later on in life, hopefully we won't get to such a stage where we've actually got so little, we've got osteoporosis. So yeah, this is a resistive exercise. You heard it in space first <laugh>

Chris - How did you get home?

Helen - Home was inside the Soyuz spacecraft. It was already docked to the space station when I arrived. So I had to transfer my seat, which was made specially to fit my body. So I had to transfer that, or fact my commander did, from the spacecraft I arrived into the one that I was going to come back to Earth inside. So yeah, we say our goodbyes and then get into our space spacecraft, close the hatch on the space station. And then when we're all sort of sitting in our seats, and our seats strapped in, we physically push our spacecraft away from the station. So with springs, we unlatch the connectors and just push ourselves away using these springs. And once we're far enough away, we can fire retro rockets. Because of course we're in orbit because we're falling around the earth and only at that stage 400 kilometres or so above the Earth's surface. So gravity's still quite strong there, but we're going so fast that we fall around the earth. So we need to slow down in order to return to the Earth's surface and to slow down. Of course, it's just the opposite of speeding up to speed up. You use a rocket engine and you push the gases out of the back and to slow down you use the rocket engine and you push the gases out of the front. So yeah, that's what we did with our main engine thrusters, pushing out of the front. That slowed us enough to come back through the atmosphere or towards the atmosphere. And then the atmosphere itself slowed us. And actually on Soyuz you have about 5.5G of deceleration, and that feels heavy. Now. 4.5G During launch didn't feel so bad compared to 1G on the ground, 5.5G compared to 0G in space, that felt heavy. Didn't last for that long. It sort of builds up to 5.5 And it's a bit bumpy anyway. And then when the atmosphere is thick enough, you've got some parachutes that open and that actually just slows you enough to come back to Earth. And then a few soft landing engines to make the landing a bit softer, but it always feels like a car crash. However many soft landing rocket engines you seem to have. So this is the thing. So come back on a SpaceX, you land in the sea at the moment. But if you were to come back on one of the SpaceX rockets that are able to actually, you know, gently land on the ground now, that's something I'd love to experience.

Chris - So it is quite a bump when you come down then?

Helen - Huge bump. Yes. And in fact, usually we bounce a bit. It's rare that you sort of come back under your parachute and just sort of settle down like a modern SpaceX rocket. Particularly if there's a bit of wind, these little engines fire at an angle to the ground, and so they push you head over heels and so you tend to tumble a little bit. And we ended up on our sides actually. But yes, it is a bump. I was strapped into my seat, that was fine. But my head was not strapped to the back of my helmet, so my head came forwards and I had some microphones up at the front of my lips, so my face sort of smashed into the microphone. So just a little bit of bruising inside our lips where our teeth squashed our lips between <laugh>, between our teeth and the front of the helmet. But that was it really. We knew the rescue team had seen us, so we just had to wait for them. And that took them about 20 minutes to arrive and then upright the spacecraft and drag us out.


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