Just 25 years ago, Helen Sharman became the first British astronaut ever to be sent into space. Stylist finds out more about the woman being left out of the history books
When astronaut Tim Peake blasted into orbit in December listening to Queen’s Don’t Stop Me Now, schools assembled their pupils to watch the launch, entire TV programmes following his progress were broadcast, #BritInSpace went viral on Twitter and the UK Space Agency released a press release heralding ‘the first Briton in space’. But there was a slight problem. Peake wasn’t the first Briton in space. That honour actually goes to a quietly spoken woman from South Yorkshire who, at the age of 27, faced public praise and misogyny in equal measure as she blasted into space exactly 25 years ago today (18 May), inspiring a generation as she went. Her name is Helen Sharman, and, hashtag or not, she was the first Briton in space.
Sharman, now 52 and an industrial chemist, boarded the Soviet Soyuz TM-12 space capsule on 18 May 1991 and spent eight days on the Russian space station Mir as part of Project Juno – a joint collaboration between the Soviet Union and a group of British companies. While Peake is the first British man to travel into space as a European astronaut and the first to live aboard the International Space Station (ISS), Sharman was inarguably the first Briton ever to travel into space.
In the wake of Peake’s successful launch, there was an outcry over how easily Sharman’s groundbreaking trip has been forgotten. One astrophysics PhD student tweeted: “There’s definitely something sexist about the claim Tim Peake is the first #BritInSpace”. Despite generally shunning the limelight, Sharman herself admits that the press release was “ill-advised and plainly wrong” when talking exclusively to Stylist, but attributes it to the enthusiasm of “wanting to make headlines and talking about being the first, the best, the biggest”, rather than it being a feminist issue.
In fact, Sharman was hailed a national hero after her trip – successive Prime Ministers invited her to Number 10, a star was engraved on the pavement in her hometown of Sheffield in her honour, and she wrote a book, Seize The Moment, describing her experiences.
Pride and prejudice
Yet, there was a flipside to Sharman’s fame. Despite a rigorous selection process – she beat 13,000 other candidates – she was denigrated as a mere ‘lottery winner’ because the initial application process for the trip was open to all. Sharman was working as a chocolate researcher for a confectionary company when she heard a radio advert that said: “Astronaut wanted. No experience required.” She then spent 18 gruelling months at the Cosmonaut Training Centre in Russia, aka Star City. “I had never considered space travel as a career because British people didn’t go into space so I had never thought that it was possible,” she explains now. “But everything about it appealed – the need to learn a language, the science and technology, the fact that it was practical work as well as theory.”
By the time Sharman’s mission finally set off, John Major was Prime Minister, Cher was at Number 1 in the singles charts and Tim Berners-Lee had just announced that he had invented something he called the World Wide Web. And although she was the only woman on Project Juno, she says she was never patronised by the other cosmonauts. “The only concession they made to me as a woman was the urine contraption they put on the end of the toilet in space. There’s a different shape for women, but it was a nuisance to change and I had got used to peeing into narrow necked bottles during training so I just used the men’s funnel.” She was also let off the Russian tradition that cosmonauts pee on the back tyre of the coach that takes them to their rocket – a habit begun by the first man in space Yuri Gagarin – so she didn’t have to take her space suit off in the minutes before blast-off.
It’s a far cry from the home comforts Peake tweets images of from the ISS today, he can take selfies in space and has his own iPod playlist. The only music Sharman heard came from a battered old tape recorder. “Before I went up, I made some cassettes to listen to with a bit of jazz and a few light classics,” she says. She was also frequently plunged into darkness because of electrical problems – a world away from Peake presenting Adele with a Brit award via video link.
Space food was radically different then too, with none of the Heston Blumenthal-created ‘multi-sensory, gravity-defying’ bacon sandwiches or Christmas pudding enjoyed by Peake. “We had basic rations,” says Sharman. “It was all very Russian – cabbage soup and borscht in a packet, meat and potatoes in a tin, fish in tomato sauce and rye bread. Nothing fun. We smuggled up an orange because two people had been up there for six months without fresh food – we thought it would be a real treat for them to have fruit. But it was semi-secret and not on any of the official documents.”
Contact with planet Earth was extremely limited, too. “Tim can use Twitter and email to communicate with his family and friends, he can pick up the GPS phone and call back to Earth. We didn’t have any of that,” she recounts. “It was completely different but there are pros and cons to that. We had some peace and quiet. When we were around the other side of Earth, even Mission Control couldn’t contact us. It was wonderfully silent.”
On her return, Sharman was constantly asked by the media about boyfriends, clothes and lipstick, rather than her intensive astronaut training. An image of her in a space suit even appeared in a newspaper with the headline ‘Barbarella Come Back’, negatively comparing Sharman to Jane Fonda’s film role as a siren space explorer. “The media suggested I had been letting the side down because I hadn’t done my hair properly or put on my make-up in space,” Sharman recalls. Although the comments clearly stung, she insists she has never let misogyny hold her back either in space or on the ground. “There is discrimination because of the way society is set up, that’s what women get on with… but we are in a much better position now.”
Despite their vastly different experiences, there is no rivalry between the two astronauts. When, this weekend, 18 international astronauts fly into London to celebrate Sharman’s anniversary, Tim Peake will be phoning in with his own personal congratulations. Sharman even gave him her treasured copy of Gagarin’s memoir Road To The Stars that she took into space with her so he could have it with him on his mission too. “I always felt I was looking after it, that I was a caretaker rather than the owner of it,” she says. “My crew had signed it. His crew can sign it too and wouldn’t it be fun if at some point in the future we could give it to someone else to take into space?”
Few of the students at Imperial College in London, where Sharman now works for the department of chemistry, know that among the staff is one of only 59 women to ever go into space. Yet her influence on a generation can’t be underestimated. Vinita Marwaha Madill, a space blogger who writes under the name Rocket Women, is just one who was inspired by Sharman’s mission when she was just six years old. “That moment changed my life and inspired me to consider a career in space. Suddenly, the image in front of me was a woman in her 20s with short brown hair. I realised that woman could be me. She showed me that my dreams were possible.” Madill may not have become an astronaut, but she has since worked as an operations engineer for the International Space Station (ISS) as well as launching her blog.
Sharman admits that she would love to go back to the stars: “I don’t know a single astronaut who wouldn’t,” she says, adding that the most astonishing thing about her experience was how Earth looks from 200 miles up. “Of course the best thing is the views. And the feeling of weightlessness is something you never forget, I still imagine it even now I’m back on Earth. You are just floating in nothing.”
A quarter of a century on, Sharman is inspiring a new generation of space travellers. She visits many schools to promote science and space travel, but prefers to discuss what it is like in space, rather than the fact that she is one of just a few women to make it out of the Earth’s atmosphere. “There are no differences between what women and men are capable of, and there should not be any differences between the opportunities girls and boys have. That should be taken as read. If I say ‘I’m the first British woman in space’ the subtext will always be, ‘Who was the first British man?’” she explains. “I just present myself as an astronaut – clearly I am a woman but I don’t have to talk about that. I am who I am.” An astronaut, a pioneer and a true space hero.
Giant leaps for womankind
We look at some of the women who have made their mark on the space race
1957: Mary Sherman Morgan
Mary Sherman Morgan invented the liquid fuel Hydyne, which powered the Jupiter-C rocket that boosted the United States’ first satellite – the Explorer 1 – into space. She never completed a college degree and was the only woman on a team of 900.
1960: Mercury 13
The First Lady Astronaut Trainees – also known as the Mercury 13 – were professional female pilots who volunteered to undergo testing for space travel. After undergoing some psychological screening, days before their training was due to start, Nasa decided not to accept women on the programme.
1963: Valentina Tereshkova
Russian Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman in space, two years after the first space flight. It was 21 years before the next woman left Earth.
1986: Christa McAuliffe
Christa McAuliffe, a civilian teacher from New Hampshire who was planning to conduct lessons from space, died along with six other crew members aboard the Challenger space shuttle, which broke apart 73 seconds into the mission.
2007: Peggy Whitson
Nasa astronaut Whitson became the first woman to command the ISS, aged 47, and supervised the station’s first expansion in more than six years.
2013: Nasa students
For the first time, Nasa enrolled a class of trainee astronauts with half of the students female (four out of eight). They hope to take their place in history alongside the 59 women out of 536 space travellers so far.
Words: Rachel Sylvester