“We should push forward not only our own individual boundaries, but also the boundaries of what humans believe is possible. People are the biggest limitations in our own lives. There's a huge amount we can do and we should make the best use of our lives for the benefit of the world.”
Helen Sharman OBE
Helen Sharman became the first British astronaut in May 1991 when she launched on a Soyuz spacecraft to spend eight days orbiting the Earth, most of that time on the Mir Space Station.
After the Soviet Space Agency reached an agreement with a company set up to manage the British Mission, Helen was one of two Britons selected for astronaut training out of almost 13,000 applicants. The programme, named Project Juno, was a co-operative arrangement and would enable Britain to send one of its people into space for the first time.
Helen underwent a rigorous selection process, which focussed on psychological and medical assessments, including tolerance to high g and motion sickness, technical understanding, practical skills and the ability to learn a foreign language. This was followed by 18 months of intensive training in Star City near Moscow, where learning to speak Russian and getting to know the cosmonauts’ families were part of her new way of life, along with preparing for weightlessness, learning how to cope inside a cramped space capsule and how to deal with a return to Earth that might end up in the sea.
During the launch, Helen carried out certain spacecraft operations. Once in space, Helen’s tasks included medical, agricultural and chemical experiments, materials’ testing, Earth observation work and operating an amateur radio link with British school students. She also took some seeds into space with her that she brought back to Earth for British school students to use as part of a UK-wide experiment to investigate the effects of space travel on the seeds as compared with a control sample.
Coping with risk was a daily activity and teamwork was a vital element in the success of the Mission. Fitted in with other activities were media interviews and a telephone conversation with President Mikhail Gorbachev.
Helen was not quite 28 years old when she became an astronaut. Born in Sheffield, Helen attended local schools and read Chemistry at the University of Sheffield. She started her career in industry immediately after graduating, working in research and development for GEC in Hammersmith, London and later for Mars Confectionery in Slough. After her return from space, Helen spent many years communicating science and its benefits by speaking, presenting on radio and television and by organising science events for the public. More recently, she has worked as a manager at the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington and at Kingston University London. Currently, Helen is the Operations Manager for the Chemistry Department at Imperial College London.
Helen has not returned to Space although, like every other astronaut, she would love to be up there again, experiencing the weightlessness, the camaraderie and the views.