In December 2015, Tim Peake became the first “official” British astronaut, when he left Earth for a spell on the International Space Station.
What do we mean by “official”? Simply that Peake was the first publicly-funded Briton to launch into space, following the establishment of the UK Space Agency in 2010.
But Peake wasn’t the first Briton in space. That honour belongs to PhD chemist Helen Sharman, who in 1989, spent 7 days, 21 hours, and 13 minutes in space as part of Project Juno.
Youth and Young Womanhood – from Chemistry to the Chocolate Factory
Helen Sharman was born in Sheffield in 1963. She studied at Sheffield University, graduating in 1984 with a BSc in chemistry. While working for the General Electric Company (GEC), she studied for a PhD at Birkbeck, University of London. Later, she used her chemical expertise to help perfect ice cream bars for Mars Confectionery.
Had Sharman’s career ended there, she’d have still put chemistry to very good use indeed. But in 1989, while driving home from the chocolate factory, Sharman heard a most remarkable advert on the radio:
“Astronaut wanted – no experience necessary.”
Well, who could possibly resist?
This radio advert was promoting Project Juno, a joint initiative between a group of British companies and the Soviet Union.
Though the ad stipulated that no experience was necessary, applicants did have to satisfy certain criteria: they had to be aged 21-40, come from a scientific background, have high level of fitness and strong linguistic skills, and they had to be British.
Of the 13,000 who applied, Sharman made it to the final four candidates. Her success was announced during a live television broadcast on 25 November 1989. What followed was a punishing selection process involving extensive physical and psychological tests, out of which only two would be selected to attend the Yuri Gagarin Cosmonaut Training Center at Star City, Moscow.
Sharman was one of the two finalists, and she would spend a gruelling 18 months being shown the cosmic ropes – how to live in a cramped environment, how to survive in space, how to cope with weightlessness, and how to pilot rocket systems.
After this extensive selection process, Sharman was selected to be the first Briton in space.
To Infinity and Beyond – Experiments in Space
Sharman blasted into space on 18 May 1991 as part of the Soyuz TM-12 mission. Sharing the craft were a pair of seasoned Soviet cosmonauts, Anatoli Artsebarski and Sergei Krikalev. This was the 12th expedition to Mir, a Soviet Union (then Russian) space station that in total was in orbit for 15 years, between 1986 and 2001.
While on board Mir, Sharman conducted a series of high-temperature superconductor experiments, using the “Elektropograph-7K”. She also carried out a number of medical and agricultural tests, grew protein crystals, took pictures of the British Isles, and communicated with British schools by radio.
Reportedly, the biggest difficulty Sharman faced when conducting chemistry experiments in space involved the equipment. It wasn’t that it was tricky to use, more that there was simply so much of it that finding the right bit of kit proved a challenge in the restrictive conditions of Mir.
Lessons Learned from Sharman’s Story
Published in 1993, Sharman called her autobiography “Seize the Moment” – and that’s exactly what she had done.
When she heard the call for astronauts, she didn’t think “I’m too inexperienced” or “but I work in a chocolate factory!” Instead, she simply thought “why not?”
What followed wasn’t easy. Few of us would have made it to the other side of that Soviet training camp in one piece. But through taking the chances life offered her, persevering and refusing to give in, Sharman did it. She made history, and remains, to this day, an inspiration to us all.
But a particularly important takeaway from Sharman’s story is that, if you choose a life of science, then there’s really no limit to what you can achieve.
In a recent interview, Sharman spoke a little about her unprecedented career path:
“Chemistry has given me more than I could ever have dreamed of. It’s given me the use of chemistry in industry, which is what I kind of thought I would do, and then I used it in space.”
As our very own Keren Abecassis will tell you, a scientific background can open a world of possibilities.
Science took Sharman to the stars. Who knows where it could take you?