Helen Sharman's 1991 space mission 'feels like yesterday'


A quarter of a century has passed, but for Helen Sharman the memory of being the first Briton in space is so vivid that it "feels like yesterday".

Talking about her historic mission 25 years after she was launched into orbit from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan, she recalled her "rough" eight days on the Russian Mir space station, where blackouts due to failing batteries were a regular occurrence.

It was a far cry from life on the much larger International Space Station (ISS), where British European Space Agency (Esa) astronaut Tim Peake is spending six months.

"The International Space Station is supposed to be like a three or four star hotel compared to the old Mir space station," said Ms Sharman, 52, speaking at Imperial College London, where she works as operations manager in the chemistry department.

"They say it's a bit like going on a hardship camping trip where you're really having to live a bit rough.

"We had blackouts occasionally when we didn't have enough electrical energy in the batteries. We had an oxygen valve that got stuck open during the launch. There's always something happening that you're there to fix. Nowadays communications are so much better, and I think that's something all astronauts really enjoy. If you can't communicate with family and friends you do tend to miss those human relationships much more."

The experience was one that imprinted itself indelibly on her mind.

"I still dream about being in space sometimes," she said. "I do remember a dream where I'm floating along the space station and then I stop by a window and one of the other astronauts joins me and we just stay there and look out. It feels like it was yesterday in some respects. I can't believe it's been 25 years."

Some of her strongest memories were of the "hair-raising" journey home - something Tim Peake will encounter himself when he returns to Earth on June 18, landing in a remote spot in the heart of the Kazakhstan steppe.

"The ride back to Earth is really exhilarating, I think far more exciting than the launch," said Ms Sharman. "(On) the launch you get three and a half gee maximum, it's a bit buffety and there are different stages, but returning to Earth is five and a half gee .. Even just lifting up your arm to push a button on the control panel, your arm weighs probably 10 or more kilos so it's quite an effort."

She recalled glowing plasma - hot, ionised gas - lighting up the window of her Soyuz spacecraft, the violent jolt of the parachute deploying, and the final jarring crunch of the landing.

The design of the Soyuz capsule that carried her and her two crew mates had changed little since the early days of the Russian space programme, but was tried and trusted.

"The Soyuz spacecraft flies like a brick, but it flies," said Ms Sharman.

She yearns for another chance to leave the Earth and is passionate about Britain committing itself to future manned space missions.

"Every astronaut wants to return," said Ms Sharman. "I don't know a single person who wouldn't go back. I would certainly love to go back into space. Going to Mars? Yes, wow .. I'd want to come back though."

At a ministerial meeting of Esa member states later this year the UK will be invited to pledge further funding for manned space missions. Without a British contribution, Esa is unlikely to send another Briton into space.

"This next big important meeting of the European Space Agency really is where the UK needs to say, that's it, we're committed .. we need to be part of this," said Ms Sharman.

"We've got this one flight of Tim Peake's .. we now need to continue to fund human space flight programmes.

"Do the British people really want to feel as though the rest of the world is going to space, the rest of the world is thinking about the future of the human race, and Britain isn't? I can't believe that's where we as a nation want to be. We're a travelling nation. We've always travelled and explored. I think we want to continue."

She believes that, while robots have an important role to play in space exploration, humans with boots on the ground can achieve much more.

"We've sent rovers to Mars, but Martian rovers can only travel a very, very short distance on the Martian surface," said Ms Sharman. "They have to be programmed well in advance. A human lands on the surface of Mars, let's say, and can immediately do a huge amount more than a robot will ever do. I think we need both. Ideally we'd have missions that combine the two."

Ms Sharman's mission in 1991, known as Project Juno, was jointly funded by a consortium of private sponsors and the Soviet Union.

She was working as a research chemist when she answered a radio advert that said: "Astronaut wanted, no experience necessary".

But her trip into space was no joy ride of the sort various rich adventurers have paid for. After being selected from some 13,000 candidates she underwent 18 months of gruelling training at Star City, the cosmonaut centre just outside Moscow.

During her time on the Mir space station she worked on a range of medical and agricultural experiments.

The often repeated description of Tim Peake as Britain's first "official" astronaut still rankles a little - but Ms Sharman says she is "delighted" with all the media attention her colleague has attracted.

"The biggest problem that was created a couple of years ago by the UK Space Agency was that they originally started calling Tim the first official astronaut, which clearly was just totally wrong," Ms Sharman said.

Earlier, she was reunited with her old Sokol space suit for a photocall at the Science Museum in London.

On Friday Ms Sharman will be joined by fellow astronauts at the museum to celebrate the docking of her Soyuz spacecraft with the Mir space station on May 20, 1991.

The next day she takes part in an event at the Science Museum's IMAX theatre, where she will discuss her experiences and answer questions from members of the public.