Titans of Science: Helen Sharman - part 1

Chris Smith chats with the first Briton to ever go to space
05 September 2023
Presented by Chris Smith


Helen Sharman


Today's guest is Helen Sharman, the first Briton in space. Our conversation ranges from her early beginnings working in a chocolate factory - Mars, would you believe - to her run in with the then leader of the Soviet Union...

In this episode

Astronaut in Space

Helen Sharman: how to get a job as an astronaut
Helen Sharman

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.

Helen Sharman

Helen Sharman: chatting with Mikhail Gorbachev
Helen Sharman

Chris - How was this going down with the chocolate factory?

Helen - They were very good actually at Mars. They were delighted. They got loads of free publicity out of it, of course. And they did offer me a job at the end of it. But I did have to resign from my job at Mars in order to go full-time. You know, I was basically living in Star City, this military base, Northeastern Moscow,.completely different lifestyle. So it is really fascinating, for that alone. Because I've always loved languages and exploring different cultures. For me the training was always going to be as exciting as going into space really. I applied to do the training. If I'm honest, I didn't know anything about space flight, but I could imagine learning to speak Russian fluently. I'd never had that opportunity in my life before. I could imagine living in a different country, you know, but I could never have imagined a Soviet military base, barbed wire around concrete walls on the perimeters, soldiers with guns at the entrances to all the buildings. But what a fascinating place to be, become part of and to make friends in and to understand how they operated, how they engineered thing s like teamwork. Completely different to the culture that I had come from in 1980s Britain where everything was so commercial and here was a country that was really into the long term, completely different environment and loved it.

Chris - I was doing my run up to my GCSEs when all this was happening to you. And we should give people some context, it was around the time this was happening to you that the Berlin War was going to come down. So there was this thawing of relations between the west and the Soviet Union as it was then. So you were very much part of that, that was a pretty special time because people were becoming a lot closer. There was more of this collaboration, wasn't there?

Helen - That's absolutely right. So the Berlin Wall had just fallen a few days before I arrived in Star City to do my training. But no, it was very much a reaching out, really my mission was part of it in a way. So Gorbachev then president of the Soviet Union was reaching out to some western countries and had asked his space agency, the Soviet Space Agency to reach out to some western countries to send one of their, say, an astronaut into space on a Soviet space mission. Very much a sort of a repeat of the early 1980s into Cosmos, Syria, when a lot of the Soviet friendly countries had astronauts going into space with the Soviets. Now this was the time for the western countries and Gorbachev very much wanted that to be part of his glasnost, really. His openness.

Chris - Did you meet him?

Helen - I didn't meet him in person, but I did have a telephone conversation with him from space. Yeah, I arrived on the space station. Bit of a problem docking, but we just got in there and did our bear hugs and greeted the two cosmonauts that had been up there already for six months. And then mission control says, oh by the way, we have somebody who would like to speak to you. Helen, he's going to speak to you first. This is President Gorbachev. I think, 'oh my goodness, if you had only warned me, I would've thought of something very erudite in Russian to have said to the president of the country that's sending me into space.' But I mean, all I could think of was saying something like an honour that you've called us. Thank you very much, and how wonderful it is that we can do this international collaboration and of course the laws of physics and science work the same in both countries, so isn't it great? And it was all about sort of making a bit light of the situation in a way. And that's all he wanted. He had a lovely chat. I mean I've subsequently seen the transcript of it and it was just to mark the fact that this was a British space mission. He did it for no other reason. He didn't need to say anything, but he was all 'oh ho ho ho, I think my dinner will be much better in the Kremlin than yours will be on the Space station.' <laugh>. 'I'm certainly much more comfortable, I'm sure, but so nice to see that you've got there. What are you going to be doing this evening then?' Just general chat. It was, you know, such an honour and yeah, a delight. So, never met the man, but I feel like I have <laugh>,

Chris - We're getting slightly ahead of ourselves because we've already gone into space. But talking of talking back to Earth, you ended up chatting with a bunch of school kids because didn't you end up on Blue Peter and that kind of thing? You did an amateur radio chat with some school children in the UK when you were up there, didn't you?

Helen - I don't think I ever actually got onto Blue Peter. Would've obviously said yes straight away. But, I did an experiment. The Radio Society of Great Britain had set me up with an amateur radio call sign. So I was able to contact British schools through the Radio Society of Great Britain and they'd set up sort of lessons where students could understand about orbits and work on contacting the space station. So I did speak directly with some school children through amateur radio. So yeah, a great honour. And I did Newsround and some other TV interviews.

Chris - I'm sure I saw coverage of this. I mean it was huge when it happened to you it was huge. It was all over the kids' media. It definitely was inspirational for the young people. What else did they teach you, obviously apart from Russian, before you were able to go aloft? What was the training? What did it comprise?

Helen - They'd split it up into a theoretical stage where we started out on real sort of basics. Um, so, you know, I mentioned ballistics and astral navigation, but we would talk about the electrical communication systems onboard the space station, the life support systems, some space flight medicine for instance. So it gradually got a little bit more practically oriented, but it did start very theoretical. But yeah, they gradually sort of built it up. We then do some simulator work. For me the best it's always our practicals. So I like the stuff in the simulator. I love all the emergency training. So we had to get rescued from the Black Sea to simulate how we would be rescued and to work of course with the divers and the other rescue crew. So they were doing their practising as well, their training on us as trainee cosmonauts. So that's how it works, you know. And the best bit actually, I think all cosmonauts agree, the best bit is the weightless training where you get a few seconds, usually just just over 20 seconds at a time, in the vomit comet. The Americans have named it thus, for obvious reasons. So it flies a series of parabolic loops and as the pilot lets the aircraft just fly down one side of the parabola as it plummets to earth, because you are falling inside the falling aircraft just for that few seconds of being in free fall, you feel weightless. And of course after 23 seconds or so, the pilot has to make the aircraft pull out of this loop because otherwise you'll hit the ground. And then you can do another loop and another and another. And yes, it's those series of 20 odd seconds at a time, which is how we can practise moving around feeling weightless. Yeah, the, the best bit of all the training. It's not, of course your body doesn't react in the same way 'cause you don't get to feel weightless for very long stretches at a time, but it gives you a good idea how to be safe and how to move around the space station.

Space Shuttle Discovery on its maiden voyage.

15:25 - Helen Sharman: the lead up to the launch

What happens in the hours before a spaceflight launch?

Helen Sharman: the lead up to the launch
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.

Aerial shot of Atlantis shuttle

Helen Sharman: launching into space
Helen Sharman

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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