Titans of Science: Helen Sharman - part 2

What is life like aboard a space station?
12 September 2023
Presented by Chris Smith


Helen Sharman


Part 2 of the extraordinary story of the first Briton in space. What was life like on a space station? How do you get back down? and what do you do afterwards?

In this episode

Astronaut spacewalking above Earth

00:46 - Helen Sharman: science experiments in space

What work did Helen get up to on the Mir Space Station?

Helen Sharman: science experiments in space
Helen Sharman

Chris - In that moment, when the acceleration stops, the G-force fell away, and you realised that you were floating. That must also be pretty elating.

Helen - First, when the final rocket engine is jettisoned, you're right, that's when we do feel weightless, but we're still strapped into our seats. So it takes another two and a half hours before we've checked that everything is safe enough for us to unstrap and take off our spacesuits. Obviously, I was feeling weightless. My body was responding to feeling weightless.

I was no longer sitting down in the back of my seat. Although I was strapped in, I could sometimes feel a bit of a gap between the back of my seat and me, which is very nice because it was very hot in those spacesuits - quite a lot of sweat. And so I could sometimes feel that the ventilation was actually going behind my back and cooling me off a bit. That felt nice. But yes, it was a while until you could really unstrap and float out, but even then the spacecraft is quite small. But it was enough to do a little, tiny tumble, and be able to pull yourself through and just stretch out a little bit. The weird thing is our actual bodies - and again, this is part of the training - but never actually having felt it before. Body fluids, it's what you experience first, really, they tend to migrate more towards the upper chest and head because they're no longer being pulled down towards our feet by gravity.

And it takes a while for our bodies to properly adapt and get rid of what we see as too much fluid in our brains. If you ever see a photograph of an astronaut and they've all looked fat and puffy faced, you know that they've not long been in space. It takes about two or three days for you to get rid of this extra fluid. Some of it does come out as additional urine in the toilet and sometimes it's just then redistributed throughout the body, but you feel as though you've got this pressure. Your nose is a bit more congested. It's one of the reasons why we don't want to take colds into space as well. That would be really unpleasant.

Chris - People also talk about visual changes and people's retinas change shape a bit, don't they? Did that happen to you? Did you have any visual changes?

Helen - My retina must have changed shape. The pressure in the eye must have pushed it back a bit, given me a bit more of a high pressure eyeball - a bit like glaucoma does for people sometimes. But I didn't notice any particular visual changes, perhaps being quite young - I was in my late twenties - maybe my eye was still quite accommodating then. But we do know that it tends to happen. Although it may happen to most astronauts, most astronauts come back to Earth and then the eye at least reverts to what seems to be a semblance of what it was before. For some people it doesn't. And so some astronauts then wear glasses for the rest of their lives. I now wear glasses, but that's just because I'm getting older! But, no, I don't think I really had any visual changes that were noticeable to me in space and back on earth. There was nothing permanent.

Chris - What were the experiments you were doing? You mentioned that you were doing a mixture of some UK experiments, but a lot of Russian experiments. What sorts of things did you have to do?

Helen - Yeah, the UK ones were mostly based around what school students had suggested. So they were my sort of spare time experiments. The Soviet experiments were, for me, a lovely variety. I've always liked variety. And so to be able to do stuff as a chemist, like growing protein crystals, is absolutely amazing. So I grew luciferase, which is a protein that we often use as scientists to attach to other proteins. And when it glows, perhaps in the presence of ultraviolet light, then we can see the presence of the molecule that's really of interest. But yes, just growing protein crystals, you can't grow them very big on Earth, and those that we can grow on Earth tend to have got lots of broken bits, dislocations we call them, between the molecules within that crystal. But you can grow protein crystals bigger and much more beautifully formed in space. So the molecules are just positioned right around each other. By doing that, we can then bring some of these crystals back to earth. And the knowledge that we can gain by doing that, the idea is that we design drugs for treatment of certain diseases on Earth. In fact, recently, we've got a treatment for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, which can significantly reduce the progress of that. And that's been because of a protein associated with that disease that was grown as a crystal in space. So as a chemist, to get crystals, protein crystals: fantastic!

It got really interesting to see how plants grow. The roots grow in weird directions in a strong magnetic field. You can force roots to grow in a particular direction in space. Sometimes plants have a hormone and so those roots will grow against the direction of the light. So of course the green leaves will point towards the light, you still get that, but to be able to look at how plants grow with a view to long-term space flight, as well as growing them on Earth. And again, these experiments have really come on in leaps and bounds in the last few decades.

I think probably the most surprising experiment to me was one that felt the most boring at the time. I had a whole frame, I had to put a load of different films of ceramic in. There were different ceramics and the idea was to investigate future spacecraft exteriors. And for me that was a fairly dull experiment. But I did have to use the airlock and, having never experienced a space walk, using the airlock was my nearest bit to going out into space. So I got all these parts in the frame and got them in the airlock, and then closed the airlock on the inside, exposed it to outer space at the radiation, the vacuum. And then, after a couple of days, brought them back into the space station. And all I really had to do was then bung them into a machine that would look at the surface and how they'd been degraded perhaps and then give the results back to the scientists. But when I brought these back into the space station, there was a smell and it was the first time I had smelled anything since I arrived on the space station because, of course, you don't get a window that opens and gives you a fresh smell. We're sitting here on the banks of the Cam and I can smell the river. I couldn't smell that in space. I couldn't smell grass, I couldn't smell air. You just have this very... well, your brain doesn't register it anymore, what smells there are up there.

So, I brought this thing back in and immediately my science brain said - because it smelled like metal - and I thought it must be the bare metal because the oxide layer must be stripped off by going into the vacuum. Made sense to me. But oh no, absolutely not. I've discovered subsequently that it's the radiation on the surface. In fact, whatever you put outside the space station smells similarly of this metal, a bit like ozone. If you have a spacesuit going outside, you bring your spacesuit back in, it smells the same. And so radiation just strips some of the bits of the molecules away. So we get these highly reactive free radicals on the surface of this material. And it's that that gives you this smell of ozone or bare metal. But it was the first time I'd smelled anything in space.

Chris - Amazing to smell space. Did you spend a lot of time gazing out of the window or did you struggle not to?

Helen - I'd been advised before I flew by an astronaut, one who'd only flown once. He said one of his biggest regrets was not having looked out of the window enough. So he said 'You'll be so keen to make sure you do a good job, wanting to repeat the experiments and communicate with mission control etc., but don't forget, take that experience!' And so I determined to take his advice and I'm so glad I did. It's just a magical view. And I think even the astronauts that had been up there for six months still enjoyed looking out at the end of a working day.

That's what we would do. We'd find the biggest window we could. It was actually a bit naughty because it was about a 40 centimetre diameter window, but it was sapphire. Now sapphire, rather than borosilicate glass or something, means you can get all the ultraviolet through it so that if you want to take some good ultraviolet pictures of the earth with ultraviolet cameras, then you can do that. Lovely. But, of course, it just means that you can get a bit sunburnt if you're not careful. It's also very, very precious. So it had a hatch on the outside, partly to keep it safe, but also to stop it from getting hit by bits of space debris and micro meteorites and so on. So anyway, we would open this hatch because it was big enough for all five of us to gather around. You can imagine our heads all pointing towards the middle of this circular window.

And we would just look out, talk about our families and friends as we passed over parts of the Earth where we knew people, and just really enjoy the view. Not just of Earth as well, actually. If this space station happened to be pointing the other way at the time, you can look at space and those stars and that is, for me, the most awesome sight. We have this rather American word, awesome, but really if anything's awesome, it is that view of stars from space. You don't have the atmosphere to filter out some of the light. So just stars absolutely everywhere. Gorgeous.

Mir Space Station

Helen Sharman: living on a space station

Helen - If you think of the International Space Station as perhaps a three or four star hotel, Mir Space station was a bit like going on a family camping trip. So, yes it was basic, but it had everything we needed. I was more than comfortable there. I've never been one for diamonds and tiaras and needing to have all my physical home comforts. It had enough air to breathe and a low enough concentration of carbon dioxide. So we didn't feel ill and we could operate.

It was reasonably cool enough. The biggest problem of having people in space is that we give off a load of heat. So we have to cool a space station. Rather than think it's too cold, it's actually too hot. And it was a bit too warm really. We floated around in our underwear, our t-shirts and long johns. Most of the time I put my formal jacket and trouser suit on to do any proper photographs and TV interviews, but most of the time we spent in this sort of semblance of underwear, really. Not so glamorous if you think about that. Mission control said, 'Oh, your face looks really pink and rosy! You must be feeling very well!' I said, 'I'm a bit warm actually!' But that was fine.

We had enough food there. The food was all sent up in advance. Space food; it was dried, it was tinned, but it was all very long life stuff. Russian food can be quite fatty and I've grown up on a relatively low fat diet. So for me, I don't like that slimy feeling in my mouth. But space food goes off if you have too much fat because it goes rancid after a while. So it was all relatively low fat. So I was well happy. For things like fruit juice, we had dried apricot juice, you'd add water to it. But in order to get it hydrated you have to add hot water. And it had to be hot anyway because that was partly how we cleaned the water, made sure that it was hot at point of use. But how do you call it on a warm space station, right? You might put it by some of the fans for the air circulation, but it never really properly cools it. And in the end we never bothered. You just drink hot fruit juice. So it's that kind of thing: you have a tin of meat and potatoes, which technically we could have heated up, but it took so long. So you eat cold meat and potatoes and hot fruit juice, but it's fine. We were healthy, we were happy with that.

There were two little bedroom areas and, being the foreign guest, I was allowed to have one of these little bedroom areas, but they were just like little cabins. There was just enough room for one sleeping bag up and down the wall of this little cabin area. There's no door to it. And the commander of the space station had the other little cabin just opposite. And the other three had to just find a space. But it doesn't really matter. So long as it's something flat - you don't want to have a bit of a knob or a button or something sticking to the middle of your back - so as long as it's nice and flat, you fasten your sleeping bag and climb in and fall asleep. And, on the space station, we had a toilet with a door!  A sort of little door that we could move across.

Chris - How does that work? Because there is no up and down. So when we flush things down on earth, gravity does the work, but what happens in space?

Helen - We flush with air. So an air flow means that anything that you do in that flow of air that gets taken up into the toilet, it's moved through. So you can imagine urine goes through a funnel and then through a tube. And so it's just an air flow going through that. Solid waste, you have a bit of a bigger hole for that and a bag goes into that hole with some little holes in the bottom of that bag so the airflow can continue to go through it. So everything that you do just sort of gets pulled with that flow of air. And then when you've finished, you close that bag, and then push that down into the toilet and then put another bag over the top ready for the next person. So it's all right. The smells are all taken away and of course we can recycle that.

And that's one of the lovely things about being in space. You can recycle the contents of the toilet through some brilliant, ingenious engineering. The liquid wastes are cleaned and then you electrolyse, passing electric current through the water means that you can get the hydrogen and oxygen from the water. Oxygen, which mixes with the air so we can breathe it. Hydrogen, when I was in space, was just wasted. But now, we're starting to mix the hydrogen with carbon dioxide that we're breathing out in a chemical process called the Sabatier process, so we're creating methane and a bit more water so that we've got rocket fuel, let's say, for the future. A wonderful way of recycling. It's one of the joys actually of talking to young people about space - that although you're talking about what it's like to live in space, every sentence is a science lesson. Brilliant

Splash down

15:03 - Helen Sharman: returning to Earth

What is involved in getting back down from space?

Helen Sharman: returning to Earth
Helen Sharman

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.

Helen Sharman

Helen Sharman: legacy of a cosmonaut
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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