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Frequently asked questions

Q

What was the purpose of your space mission and how did it come about?

In the 1980s, the Soviet Space Agency approached western European countries with a view to flying one of their nationals to the Mir Space Station. At the time, the UK Government did not fund human spaceflight but a company was created to manage the Mission to put the first Briton into space on a commercial basis. The Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was supportive and when the company failed to raise sufficient funds, a new agreement was made with the Soviets. This meant flying Soviet experiments but the Mission could continue. It was an important time in UK-Soviet relations. President Gorbachev even called from a telephone in the Kremlin to congratulate us on our docking to Mir and to wish us a successful Mission.

Q

What are the g-forces during launch?

A Soyuz launcher gives a maximum of 3.5g of acceleration (however, returning to Earth is more physically demanding, with 5.5g of deceleration). The launch does not gradually build up to 3.5g but it is lumpy and bumpy: as fuel is used up the rocket becomes lighter so acceleration increases; when the fairing or a rocket stage is jettisoned there is a bump and between stages there is a gap when the acceleration drops to less than 1g. The maximum acceleration comes with the third and final stage. As soon as this is jettisoned, acceleration immediately drops to zero and the astronauts feel weightless.

Q

What makes astronauts float?

As soon as the final rocket stage is used up and jettisoned, the Soyuz spacecraft starts to fall, being pulled towards the centre of the Earth by gravity. Although acceleration due to gravity decreases the further away from Earth we are, in low Earth orbit,about 400km from the surface of the Earth, the acceleration due to gravity is still very strong (about 90% of what it is on the Earth’s surface). However, the rocket has made the spacecraft travel along at 8km per second (17 000 miles per hour), which is so fast that as the spacecraft falls, the Earth’s surface curves away below. The spacecraft continues falling around the Earth and the astronauts are falling inside it. In low Earth orbit, we feel weightless because we are constantly falling, floating inside the falling spacecraft.

Q

What does weightlessness feel like?

Weightlessness is the most natural, free and relaxing feeling I have experienced. Although it feels uncomfortable to start with, the human body quickly adapts and I forgot what it is like to have weight, i.e. to sit down or to stand up. Sleeping on the wall or the ceiling is an entirely reasonable thing to do in space!

Q

What experiments did you do?

I investigated the effects of weightlessness on our bodies and plants; I used an experimental air lock to put a rack of ceramic films outside the Space Station to find out how they responded to the vacuum and radiation of space; I grew protein crystals; I investigated new materials and I monitored the colour of certain parts of the Earth’s surface. I used an amateur radio system to make contact with students in UK schools and I took some seeds with me that became part of a UK school experiment with another, control set of seeds.

Q

What did you eat and drink in space?

The food was mostly tinned or dried. Some, like the cream cheese and certain types of fruit juice, was in tubes rather like tubes of toothpaste. Cabbage soup, fish in tomato sauce, bread and tea were staples. We did take a small item of fresh food, which was a real treat for the astronauts who had been on Mir for 6 months when we arrived.

Q

Did anything go wrong?

An oxygen valve stuck open during my launch, an antenna on the outside of the Soyuz was damaged, resulting in us having to do a manual docking to Mir and there was insufficient electrical energy being produced by the solar panels due to a new module and a computer failure. Like any complex piece of engineering, a space station needs maintenance and repair.

Q

What parts of the Mission did you enjoy most?

Floating into Mir and greeting the two people who had been there already for six months was a great feeling, as was floating about feeling weightless. The views out of the window were magical and something we never tired of watching.

Q

Does being the first UK astronaut make you feel a need to behave in a certain way?

I wanted to share my spaceflight with as many people as wanted to know and I used my experience to communicate science to school students across the country. I spent eight years after my flight travelling around the UK, giving talks and presenting science. I was not employed by the Mission after the end of 1991 and most of this work was unpaid but I consider it amongst the most valuable outputs of my Mission.

Q

What are you doing now?

I am the Operations Manager for the Chemistry Department at Imperial College London. I occasionally give talks and lectures. If you would like to enquire about a speaking opportunity for me please contact DBA Speakers»