In 1991, chemist Helen Sharman blasted off for a seven-day mission to the Mir space station, becoming the first Briton in space.
She was working for the Mars confectionery company when she heard a radio advertisement asking for applications to Project Juno, a collaboration between the Soviet Union and a group of British companies. Following 18 months’ training, she was selected as the British astronaut for the mission.
Since returning to Earth, Sharman has been actively involved in engaging the public with science, but has also reconnected with chemistry. She recently joined Imperial’s Department of Chemistry as Operations Manager. Hayley Dunning sat down with her to talk about everything from the importance of outreach to the scientific merits of going to the toilet in space.
Welcome to Imperial! How have you found it so far?
It’s wonderful to be among such a rich section of people who are so keen to make their jobs, their lives, and the lives of everybody that they're working with the best that they possibly can. It's so refreshing and so uplifting to be part of a community like this.
You were trained as a chemist before you went into space, and now you work in the Department of Chemistry here at Imperial. Is chemistry still your first love?
Of course, I don't think any chemist can ever grow away from chemistry. I've always been interested in science in general and chemistry for me is one of the central sciences - it's got a bit of biological stuff, it's got a bit of physical stuff - it's got everything in it.
Chemistry has given me more than I could ever have dreamed of. It's given me the use of chemistry in industry, which is what I kind of thought I would do, and then I used it in space. Now I'm managing, and you could argue I don't really need to be a chemist to do the job, but the fact that I enjoy chemistry means I just feel right having a home in a chemistry department.
What experiments did you actually conduct up on the Mir space station?
I had a whole range of different ones actually that made it quite interesting. There were lot of agricultural-type experiments, such as looking at potato roots. Roots are really interesting because they grow in all sorts of different directions in weightless conditions. We also grew wheat seedling and looked at how they actually germinate.
Then there were protein crystals - you can grow some protein crystals much bigger in space than you can on Earth. There were also some Earth observation experiments and medical experiments; looking at how my body was adapting to weightless conditions and any chemical changes. We also asked questions like: When you close your eyes can you write in a straight line? Can you position your own body in a certain way?
Listen to Helen Sharman talk more about her experiences in space and her training for the big event:
You've recently been honoured by the British Science Association for your outreach efforts. How important is it for you to get people interested in science?
For me it's always been important to make sure that people can have access to science. After my spaceflight I gave lots of talks about really what it's like in space and more and more people were asking me about the science - not just the experiments I did but the technology of the spacecraft and why we need to do these kinds of things in space anyway. And they were telling me that actually they didn't manage to get this information anywhere else. When you’ve left school or university, where are you going to find out about science?
I also think it's so important that we have science as part of a democracy, that we debate science in society, as we debate everything else. If we leave out whole sectors of society from that public debate, that means we're missing out on where we really need to be in our democracy and what we're using science for.
It's nearly 25 years since you went up, and only now have we got our second ever British astronaut, Major Tim Peake, launching in December. Should the UK be more involved in manned spaceflight?
I think that Britain needs to be absolutely involved in human spaceflight in the long term. Tim's mission has been funded, but just this one mission. There's no promise of any government funding for the longer-term future.
If the scientists are going to be able to continue their projects, if we're going to be able to retain that body of knowledge and that expertise of the scientists themselves who've been working on not just Tim's mission, but human spaceflight in general, then the British government needs to continue to fund that.
We also need to do it for the longer-term for the British people. I think Britain is really interested in human spaceflight, people across all walks of life are really keen to find out more about it. Throughout history we've been an island mentality where people have wanted always to explore. I think that's part of the human psyche anyway, that we've always pushed out our boundaries throughout millennia, and if we stop doing that, that's the beginning of our contraction.
Thinking about the future of manned spaceflight, would you take a mission to Mars?
I'd love to go to Mars, but I'd love to come back! There's no way I'd do something that's a one-way ticket. It would be rather nice not to have to go away for so long - at the moment it still takes a few months to get there, a few months to get back - it takes up quite a big chunk of one's life.
But yes, to be in space for a few months, maybe 6-9 months I think would be quite an optimal time. And of course on Mars one wouldn't be weightless for so long, so you're not going to have quite such a deleterious effect on the body. The big problem on Mars is the radiation, which we really still haven't got to the bottom of; how can humans cope with that and make sure that we're protected from it?
But it would be very interesting, wouldn’t it, to go out there?
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