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HISTORY's Forgotten People: Helen Sharman

HISTORY's Forgotten People: Helen Sharman
Helen Sharman's official cosmonaut photograph.Credit: Gagarin Research & Test Cosmonaut Training Center

When Major Tim Peake blasted off into space in December 2015, he became the toast of the nation – and with good reason. Tim had, after all, become Britain’s first official astronaut. There’s just one small thing a lot of people seem to have forgotten: he wasn’t Britain’s first ACTUAL astronaut. “Official” or not, that honour goes to a woman who triumphantly departed Earth’s surface almost three decades ago: Helen Sharman.

Helen Sharman with fellow astronauts
Helen Sharman with fellow astronauts Anatoli Artsebarski and Sergei Krikalev. Credit: NASA

While Tim Peake was showered in adulation – complete with a social media frenzy and proudly-publicised photos of Prime Minister David Cameron watching the major’s historic journey to the International Space Station – some remembered that, in the not so dim-and-distant past, Helen Sharman basked in the same kind of glory, only without the hashtags. So just who is she, and why has her trailblazing voyage to the stars been so overshadowed by the passage of time?

The accidental astronaut

Helen Sharman wasn’t some test pilot or decorated soldier with a CV packed with daring escapades in supersonic aircraft. At the time of her extraordinary adventure, the Sheffield-born woman was a research chemist working for a confectionary company. 

Her career as a space traveller didn’t begin in the corridors of some government agency – she was actually on the commute home from work when fate made itself felt. While behind the wheel of her car, she heard a curious tagline on a radio advert. “Astronaut wanted. No experience necessary.” It wasn’t some clever, ironic advertising gag for a new brand of kids’ toy or excessively baggy 90s clothing.

It meant exactly what it said: a space programme was looking for someone to thrust into orbit, and applications were open to everybody, whatever their background or experience. The programme was called Project Juno, and it was a bold attempt to improve British-Soviet relations in the twilight years of the Cold War.

As the UK had no official space programme of its own, the idea was to raise funds to effectively book a seat on a Soviet rocket instead, and provide the world with the feel-good story of a space mission which crossed the Iron Curtain. A consortium was set up to provide the cash, with big sponsors including British Aerospace and Interflora. Now all they needed was the right person for the job. And, like the ad said, no experience was necessary.

"Knowing that there had been a British astronaut, female at that, helped me push through any negativity around my chosen career path when I was younger."

Vinita Marwaha Madill, British Space Operations engineer and science communicator

“It wasn’t so much going to space as the training that appealed,” Helen Sharman would later recall. “Living in Russia, learning the language, doing advanced mechanics. It was a way out of the rat race.”

Unsurprisingly, Project Juno was swamped with applicants. More than 13,000 people filled in the forms to be considered for this abrupt opportunity to become an astronaut (or cosmonaut, properly speaking). The list was filtered down to 150, with Helen Sharman being one of this very long shortlist. There were detailed medical and psychological assessments, and the list got shorter and shorter. It was a tense period, a bit like being on a reality series with contestants being steadily eliminated one by one.

By the end of 1989, the number had been cut down to just four finalists. One of them was Helen Sharman. But it was another finalist who was considered the favourite to get the coveted seat on the spacecraft. Rather ironically, given what would happen decades later with Major Tim Peake, this rival of Helen’s was another Major Tim – Major Tim Mace, a dashing helicopter pilot and army parachutist who also happened to be an accomplished aeronautical engineer. Definite front-runner material.

Eventually, the “contest” was whittled down to just Helen Sharman and Major Tim Mace, and both were duly dispatched to a cold town near Moscow to begin many months of intense preparations. Throughout it all, neither knew which of them would actually be picked. When the decision was finally made, Major Tim took it in good humour, and they carried on training together right till the eve of the launch, which took place on 18 May 1991.

Floating in a tin can

Helen Sharman in space
Aboard the Mir Space Station, Helen Sharman poses with other cosmonauts. Credit: Rocketstem.org

When Tim Peake went up to the International Space Station, he enjoyed a rather swanky stay by space travel standards. The Internet meant it was easy to chit-chat with people back on Earth, and he even had Michelin-starred chef Heston Blumenthal prepare special culinary treats for his time in orbit. Things couldn’t have been more different for Helen Sharman. Her destination was the space station Mir, which was the proverbial floating tin can compared to the ISS. 

Food meant Russian rations of cabbage soup out of packets, and tinned meat and potatoes. There was only fleeting communication with the planet down below. Power cuts were the norm, as the solar panels had suffered so much wear and tear. Helen had to get used to sudden spells of pitch-darkness, when all she and her fellow cosmonauts could do was sit and wait for the lights to turn back on.

As for the morning wake-up alarm – it happened to be identical to the emergency alarm, which meant an unnerving start to each day. As she later said, “You’d wake up unsure if it was time to get up or if you were leaking oxygen. It got us out of our sleeping bags pretty quick.”

Helen Sharman lands back on Earth
Helen Sharman returns to Earth. Credit: Alamy

Despite the little annoyances, she relished her time on Mir, and after just eight short days in space it was time to come home to a hero’s welcome. Much like Major Tim decades later, Helen was an overnight national treasure, the woman who’d single-handedly brought Britain into the space age, and from the unlikeliest of backgrounds too. She was invited to Downing Street, had buildings in various schools named after her, and was appointed an OBE. She also published books and went on speaking tours. She was, in other words, as famous as anyone in the country. Until she wasn’t.

Helen Sharman timeline

Why was she forgotten?

Some might dispute the use of the word “forgotten”. After all, a quick Google search will throw up plenty of information about this great Briton. But the fact remains, Helen Sharman is no longer a household name, and currently works at a London university where, in her words, she’s “treated with the same lack of respect as everyone else”. It’s also fair to assume the overwhelming majority of Brits today think of Tim Peake as the first astronaut from these shores.

"Fame was the downside of space."

Helen Sharman

This is partly down to a technicality. Helen Sharman’s trip didn’t receive public funding in Britain, and she could therefore be sidelined by cynics and pedants as a kind of early “space tourist”, despite the fact she underwent an epic training regimen and even became fluent in Russian.

By contrast, Major Tim was an astronaut with the European Space Agency, publicly funded and bearing the big, shiny stamp of officialdom. On top of that, Project Juno, which sent Helen into space, had an inconveniently rocky genesis – full funding on the British side had fallen through, meaning Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev had to pressure his side to foot the bill. Not a particularly proud story from the British government’s point of view.

The more important reason is that Helen Sharman herself deliberately withdrew from the media glare. Fame wasn’t what she ever wanted – especially not the gossipy, tabloid-style fame that seemed to take her achievements less seriously because she happened to be a woman. The prevailing sexism of early 90s media meant one newspaper even compared her with sci-fi sex siren Barbarella, scolding her for not wearing enough make-up on Mir. Interviewers would bug her with questions on her clothes rather than her time in orbit. As she summed it up, “Fame was the downside of space.”

And so, Helen Sharman consciously re-embraced life as a mere mortal, and the sheer amount of time that passed between her voyage and Tim Peake’s meant that, by the time his mission came, history seemed to have been rebooted. Yet the importance of Helen Sharman is undeniable – both as a Briton and as an inspiring figure to other women entering the traditionally male-dominated sphere of aeronautics and space travel.

Britain's first astronaut Helen Sharman holds her Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George
Helen Sharman holds her Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George medal presented by Queen Elizabeth II

In the poignant words of Vinita Marwaha Madill, a young woman who’s worked in spacesuit design for the European Space Agency, “Knowing that there had been a British astronaut, female at that, helped me push through any negativity around my chosen career path when I was younger. Even if the career councillor at school wanted me to become a dentist, I knew that I wanted to be an astronaut, or at least work in human spaceflight.”

It’s for this reason, as much as anything patriotic, that Helen Sharman deserves to be remembered forever for her incredible achievement.

HISTORY’s Forgotten People shines a light on those men and women who’ve made an impact on this world, for both good and bad, but whose stories now sit in the shadows of history. Some achieved great things which time forgot, whilst others came close to making their mark on this world but ultimately came up short. All of these people though have a reason to be remembered.