A radio commercial suddenly took over the cars’ atmosphere that can only be described as jittery amidst a traffic jam on the way back from the Mars Company in Slough, Berkshire England, to her flat in Surbiton, Surrey. The radio belts: “Astronaut wanted, no experience necessary.”1 These words changed the life of 26-year old Helen Sharman…

Raised by her physicist father and nurse mother, Helen Sharman came to understand the importance of science and genuine curiosity for learning about the way things work. “If I wanted to know how a vacuum cleaner works, he could tell me. If I wanted to know how to wire a plug, he could do that. It wasn’t as though it was a weird thing that could only be learned at school – he could explain these parts of life, so science was always relevant.”2  In school, she pursued multifaceted intellectual and creative endeavors. She loved science and playing the piano. Her capacity to excel in learning foreign languages such as German and French foreshadowed her remarkable later talent in her Russian language training courses to become an astronaut. In her autobiography, Helen Sherman described her upbringing as “decidedly remarkable.” This knowledge combined with her persistent drive to achieve, prepared her for the opportunity of a lifetime, to become the first British astronaut ever to go to space. What she would do next in her career would build upon her skills in such a perfect way that made her shine so bright that she could beat out all the other 13,000 applicants for the job of astronaut!3

She earned a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry in 1984 from the University of Sheffield, England. She then took a job as an engineer for the General Electric Company in London. Her daily activities at the company consisted of organizing schedules, developing and researching on cathode ray tube components, where she took on many roles for production that often required problem solving. The talent she possessed did not go unnoticed by her employer who offered to fund her next education venture researching rare Earth ions in crystals.4 While earning her doctorate from Birkbeck College in London, she took a job as a chemist for Mars Confectionery Ltd.5 On her job at the Mars company, she developed new ice creams flavors and transitioned the factory from experimenting with flavors in a laboratory, to making factory sized production outputs. Once she completed this task, she began working with the flavor properties of chocolate to find a way to make it cheaply, efficiently, but most importantly retaining the same sugar-induced cravings that the consumer preferred over its competitors.6

The crew patch for the Soviet Soyuz TM-12 Space Mission | Courtesy of Wikipedia

Once she responded to the call to become an astronaut on board of the Soyuz TM-12 (12th expedition), the play on the words “Girl from Mars” took on a whole new meaning. Project Juno, a privately funded space mission by British companies, was supported by the Soviet Union in an attempt to forge friendship between the two countries. President Mikhail Gorbachev’s policy of Glasnost hoped to cement these friendly relations and to reform its social and economic standing in the global arena. It was a new project that had few requirements besides possessing British citizenship and falling between the ages of 21-40. The more challenging requirements included that the applicant must have formal scientific training, proven ability to learn a foreign language, and be in good physical standing. Sharman had all checked off her list. After making the cut from 13,000 applicants dow

n to 22, the new wringing of candidates produced Sharman and her backup Timothy Mace as the finalists. The only challenge was to endure the 18-month grueling of training in the Soviet Union. It included experiencing G-forces and spacewalk training. Sharman was finally measured for her suit. Once it got out that she was clear to go, the press used the tagline “Girl from Mars” anywhere and everywhere. This marketing move was hoped to have secure

Helen Sharman’s spacesuit | Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

d funds through major buzz. Unfortunately Britain, under Margaret Thatcher at the time, had ended the British Space Program in 1986. So this program needed to be funded privately and the $12 million requested by the Soviet Unions private investors presented an unreachable goal.7 

Eventually $1.7 million U.S dollars was raised but that was only a fraction of what was needed for the joint space mission. Sharman remembers the support she received from the Prime Minister at the time. However, nationally there was no interest to put Britain into space since the space race had long simmered down.8  Following the Apollo-Soyuz Project, a U.S-Soviet unofficial peace mission in 1975, the British public did support investing millions simply to put first Briton in space. Keep in mind, Project Juno, only came to fruition in 1991, more than a decade after Apollo-Soyuz. The mission went ahead with the green-light from the Soviet Union. Since the funds expected from the UK had not been raised, the project was now entirely under the Soviet direction.9 Not only were experiments cut from the mission but the Soviets got to decide what would be experimented on.10 The venture was no longer in equal standing, however Gorbachev still extended a hand to Britain.

The Soyuz TM-12 Mission launched on May 18, 1991. It included medical and agricultural tests in space. The mission concluded within 8 days. In a conversation for an article by Sarah Everts, Helen Sharman describes what replicating experiments in space entailed. “They were very interested in growing food in space. And in the way magnetic fields affect plant growth. So how potato roots can be pulled in a certain direction if you have a strong enough magnetic field around them. We also had a miniature lemon tree. We wanted to see if we could keep it alive by supplying all the right gases. It was at the space station for three years but died eventually.” Although her work is not for the average farmer, she still acknowledges that experiments in space do not change who she is as a researcher. “-I would call us space technicians not scientists. Astronauts don’t invent the experiments. We don’t analyze the data, and by large, we don’t make conclusions.” Sharman witnessed the historic downfall of the political standing of the Soviet Union, just as she was training to become an astronaut. The close proximity to military forces in Star City, which was Northeast of Moscow, gave her a chance to see the effects that the fall of the Soviet Union had on its populations. “ …it was at a time when there was nothing in the shops in Moscow. [Soviets] wanted to share what they had with me—they were proud of their culture—but they could not buy ingredients to make food at their parties. It was a sad time for them.”11

Recounting on her time spent on the Russian Space Station, MIR, gave a glimpse into the amazing reality of the unexplored for many and the challenge of coming back. “You can’t imagine how deep the colour is,” she said. “And the detail: you can see continents, but also the wake of a ship. And, at night, the lights of cities shine up to you.

Earth from Space | Courtesy of Flickr

There was a window where I slept, and waking up to the world right outside … wonderful.” 12 Being the first British woman in space is an extraordinary feat but for Helen Sharman, it was just the beginning of breaking gender stereotypes that even long after her successful mission, continued to be imposed on her. Years after touring the country and educating the youth about her incredible experiences, she ended up going into hiding, regaining much of the privacy she had lost from the experience. In a surprising turn of events in 2013, the UK Space Agency named Major Tim Peake, who traveled to the International Space Station in 2015, as the first Brit in space for boarding Soyuz TMA-19M. Sharman was surprised at this sudden endorsement as they effectively replaced her as the first Brit in space. “These days, to get headlines, you have to be first or best or some superlative, and I suspect someone thought that title would get Tim more attention,” she replies. […] And, actually, he deserved that because what he’s doing is incredible.” 13

She was the first British Astronaut in space and even though she was not given the title officially because the program was not associated under ESA, she is an important part of history and a greater example of the pursuit of education, crushing gender roles, and really just being a pioneer in the late space race. Following her years of fame, she went low-profile to regain her privacy. After years of educating the public, taking interview after interview, writing multiple books detailing her journeys, she began to fade among her colleagues at Imperial College London. There she took a job at the Department of Chemistry as Operations Manager. Her journey is long and diverse. Even today she continues to make history with her knowledge just as she did on the flight to the Russian Space Station Mir. Before Tim Peake headed to board the Soyuz TMA-19, Sharman gave the greatest lesson that everyone should hear if they ever get the chance to go to space, “ look out the window as much as you can.”

 

  1. James Blitz, Baikonur, and Maurice Chittenden, “Helen from Mars takes the Soviet highway to the stars; Helen Sharman,” Sunday Times, May 19, 1991, http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsgea&AN=edsgcl.117271983&site=eds-live&scope=site.
  2. Jamie Durrani, “Astronauts Wanted, No Experience Required,” July 19, 2019, RSC Education, https://edu.rsc.org/feature/astronauts-wanted-no-experience-required/3010749.article.
  3. Umberto Cavallaro, Women Spacefarers : Sixty Different Paths to Space (Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2017), 115-116.
  4. Umberto Cavallaro, Women Spacefarers : Sixty Different Paths to Space (Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2017), 115.
  5. Adam Augustyn, “Helen Sharman,” Encyclopedia Britannica, January 24, 2020, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Helen-Sharman.
  6. Umberto Cavallaro, Women Spacefarers : Sixty Different Paths to Space (Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2017), 115.
  7. Umberto Cavallaro, Women Spacefarers : Sixty Different Paths to Space (Cham, Switzerland: Springer,

    2017), 113-119.

  8. Helen Sharman, “Helen Sharman CMG OBE, Frequently Asked Questions.” Accessed February 14, 2020,  http://www.helensharman.uk/frequently-asked-questions/.
  9. Adam Vaughan, “I am angered by the fact that we’re destroying Earth,” New Scientist 243, no. 3249 (September 2019): 42-43.
  10. James Blitz, Baikonur, and Maurice Chittenden, “Helen from Mars takes the Soviet highway to the stars; Helen Sharman,” Sunday Times, May 19, 1991, http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=edsgea&AN=edsgcl.117271983&site=eds-live&scope=site.
  11. Sarah Everts, “A Conversation with Helen Sharman,” ACS Central Science 2, no. 8 (2016): 486-488.
  12. Colin Drury, “Blast off! Why Has Astronaut Helen Sharman Been Written out of History?” April 18, 2016, Guardian News and Media, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/apr/18/blast-off-why-has-astronaut-helen-sharman-been-written-out-of-history.
  13. Colin Drury, “Blast off! Why Has Astronaut Helen Sharman Been Written out of History?” April 18, 2016, Guardian News and Media, https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2016/apr/18/blast-off-why-has-astronaut-helen-sharman-been-written-out-of-history.

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54 Responses

  1. I’d never heard about Helen Sharman until reading this article, so first I want to say thank you for bringing light to an impressive story as more times than not we hear more stories about the achievements of men than we do about the achievements of women. Helen was an amazing woman, and it shows through the way others who knew her talked about her experiences as well!

  2. Its “funny” how we always hear about what men do. If a man does something big, it is sure to be out in the news, but when a woman does something it is not as big of a news. I had never heard of Helen Sharman or of her career but I think it is vert interesting. I agree that Helen is an important part of history and a great example of crushing gender roles. Women are sometimes thought of as teachers, secretaries or simply with simpler careers but women can be scientists, astronauts or even the VP of the United States and hopefully one day the President.

  3. This is the first time I hear about Helen Sharman, and I’m impressed with her career. From the beginning, when she was a remarkable student until she accomplished all of her aspirations, one of them was to become the first British woman going to space. After all her passion, effort, and perseverance, she made her dreams come true. Helen Sharman’s career should be an inspiring story for every woman. Great article!

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