Dr Helen Sharman always knew that she wanted to study science at university, and considered biology, medicine, and physics before deciding on chemistry.
‘After – well, in fact, during – my degree, I always knew I wanted to go into industry,’ Dr Sharman said, as she began her fully booked evening lecture at SCI’s London headquarters. ‘I just thought chemistry was going to be a fabulous way of keeping my options open.’
How right she was – Dr Helen Sharman’s CV reads like an especially far-fetched answer to the question, ‘What would you like to be when you grow up?’
Before taking the job for which she became best known, Helen Sharman worked for General Electric, developing screens and coatings for electronics; and then as a chemist for the confectioner Mars, where she was part of the team that developed the innovative Mars Ice Cream – a canny solution to the seasonal dip in chocolate bar sales over summer.
‘I then moved on in my job to the next department – the chocolate department,’ she continued, a smattering of oohs and aahs returning from the audience.
‘One of the tasks I had to do every day was to trundle down to the production line and take samples of chocolate and’ – she whispered – ‘taste it’.
‘There I was, using my chemistry, in industry, in a production environment, tasting chocolate. I loved it.
‘What better job could anybody have?’
There can’t be many. But one day, while driving home, Helen Sharman heard five words on a radio advert that could tempt her away even from her dream job at a chocolate factory.
‘Astronaut wanted: no experience necessary’.
No experience necessary
The advert was for Project Juno, the private British space programme to select the country’s first ever astronaut, who would join three Russian astronauts on the Mir Space Station for eight days.
‘They were looking for people who were qualified in something like science, engineering, medicine – something technical – and someone who did a practical job with their hands, because the ultimate astronaut was going to need to do experiments in space,’ Dr Sharman explained.
The astronaut would also need learn Russian in preparation for 18 months of training in Star City, near Moscow, before embarking on an eight-day mission orbiting Earth on the Mir Space Station with three Russian astronauts.
Finally, Dr Sharman explained, the successful applicant had to be reasonably physically fit, or more specifically, healthy – ‘You can train a certain fitness if you’ve got an internal health’, she said.
Of the 13,000 initial applicants, Helen Sharman made it to the final two. She and RAF Major Timothy Mace would not find out until three months before departure who was first choice and who was backup.
Meanwhile, the two prospective astronauts underwent rigorous training and tests, flight simulations, and experienced the illusion of weightlessness (achieved through parabolic flight in an aeroplane) – ‘This is the part of the training that every astronaut agrees, by far, is the best bit’, Dr Sharman said.
Experiments in space
Of course, it was Helen Sharman who was selected, and on 18 May 1991, she boarded the Soyuz TM-12 mission to the Mir Space Station with Soviet cosmonauts Anatoly Artsebarsky and Sergei Krikalyov, experiencing 3G of acceleration on launch and in 530 seconds – less than nine minutes – was 400km away from the earth’s surface. The Soyuz capsule orbited the planet for two days before manually docking with Mir.
With no time to waste, she began work on the experiments she was there to do for the next eight days…