Dr. Helen Sharman, the first British astronaut and at 27 the fifth youngest person to be launched into space on the 18th May 1991. Our contributor Annie May Gibbs had the opportunity to meet Dr Sharman and ask her some questions.
After responding to a radio advertisement that captured her attention; ‘Astronaut wanted, no experience necessary’, she was subjected to a strict selection process, and eventually chosen ahead of 13,000 other people to fly to the MIR space station, 250 miles above earth.
Helen lived in Star City near Moscow for the eighteen months of training and preparation before her space flight, during which she also learnt to speak Russian.
Dr. Helen Sharman travelled to the space station on a space craft with two Russian cosmonauts* during which they orbited the earth once and docked on to the MIR, where she spent eight days living and conducting experiments about the effects of weightlessness on physical, chemical and biological systems.
Hello Helen. Why did you decide to become an astronaut?
I did not consider becoming an astronaut until I heard of the opportunity on my car radio as I drove home from work. As I listened to the advert I realised that a job which combined learning a foreign language and doing physical training with science work was a dream come true. The chance to fly into space and feel weightless made it even better and I applied.
Were you at all nervous before embarking on your space mission?
I was not nervous because my training had been good. I felt as though I knew what I had to do if
all went to plan and what I would do if there were problems. I also trusted my crew and the whole team in Mission Control who would help me through the Mission.
Can you describe the feeling of being weightless, and your emotions that went with it?
Feeling weightless is the most natural, relaxing feeling you can imagine, rather like floating on water in a swimming pool but without the buoyancy of the water. When I relaxed, my knees bent a little and my arms floated up so my hands were almost in front of my face.
I loved not sitting, standing or lying on anything and being able to float in the middle of the space station without touching anything at all.
What did the Earth look like from space?
I was in near Earth orbit, about 400 km above the surface of the Earth. From here I could see that the Earth is curved and I could see the whole of Western Europe in one glimpse, though I could not see the entire Earth as a globe in the distance as people could from the Moon. The overall impression is of a strong mid blue colour, there being so much water on the Earth’s surface and in the atmosphere.
Are you proud of your achievement as the first Briton in space?
I will always be the first Briton in space and that is a great honour.
As a girl, what were your interests and what did you aspire to achieve in your life?
I had a series of ambitions, ranging through nursing, engineering, being a professional pianist, an Olympic high jumper and a vet. In the end I chose to study chemistry at university because it would keep as many options open as possible; I knew I wanted a varied career.
What words of advice would you give to any aspiring astronauts?
Study science, have a back up plan until the right opportunity arises, and go for it!
*Do you know…..
A person trained by a human spaceflight program to command, pilot, or serve as a crew member of a spacecraft is called
– An astronaut (in the U.S.)
– A Cosmonaut (in Russia)
– A Taikonaut (in China)
Photography: Essam 2006