A blog post by Johanna Wilson, Social Media Officer
The Science Museum’s celebration of the 25th anniversary of Helen Sharman heading off into space kicks off with a collection of video clips. It shows her training at Star City, Moscow on what just looks like a fancy exercise bike and floating in zero gravity trying to catch food in her mouth. She is the first British person to go into space but she seems in the video like an ordinary, down-to-earth (terrible pun fully intended) person.
This may have something to do with how she came to be in space. At the age of 26, and working as a food chemist at Mars (you couldn’t make it up), she heard a radio advert for “Astronaut wanted: no experience necessary” and decided to apply. Helen beat out 13,000 other applicants to get a place as part of Project Juno. After eighteen months of intensive flight training, she along with Soviet cosmonauts Anatoly Artsebarsky and Sergei Krikalev launched into space on the 18th May 1991 and where they spent eight days, mostly at the Mir space station.
When Helen comes on stage, she is instantly likeable, cracking jokes about everything from the extensive borscht provision on the Russian spacecraft to the unnerving incident the day after she docked when an alarm went off and all the lights and fans cut out. You can see just how passionate she is about space travel; “I’d go on anything!” her quick reply when asked what mission would tempt her back up into space. When asked for her advice for budding astronauts, the first thing she advised was studying science or science engineering and it was wonderful to hear a successful female scientist talking about her experiences and the work she did, particularly when women make up just 12.8% of the STEM workforce in the UK. Yet she also stressed the importance of tolerance and being able to work as part of a team as just as important to succeeding.
You can see this tolerance and cooperation on a truly international scale just by the astronauts who joined her on stage from the Association of Space Explorers; there were representatives from France, Austria, Romania, Germany and Bulgaria. Though they all came from different backgrounds, like Helen, the love for what they did shone through. Dumitru Prunariu is the President of the Association and spoke proudly of the 400 members and 37 countries represented. When talking of what united them, he spoke of having seen the earth from up in space, its beauty and fragility, and how it is all of our jobs to protect it (a belief that the Women’s Institute has always shared).
There was time to ask questions at the end, and our Belle Frances was naturally in there first as our expert in all things space-related! She asked about the value of learning other languages for space travel which gained a lot of agreement on stage with Dumitru sharing the difficulty he had learning Russian when he started.
There were also questions around their views on space tourism and how long the body took to adapt in space, with the final question coming from a child who wanted to know how long did they train to be astronauts and “was it useful?” which got a lot of laughs. The training answers ranged from a year to five years, with Franz Viehbock, Austria’s first cosmonaut, comforting the young man that “training starts in school and most of it is useful!” And to finish it off, you don’t get much better than a video sendoff from Buzz Aldrin and Brian Cox.
We had a fantastic time and if you want to catch the full talk yourself, the Science Museum has made is available here!