Responding to a radio advertisement looking for potential astronauts, Dr. Helen Sharman applied, not so much for the end goal of being an astronaut, but instead for the training experience of living in Russia, learning the language, and working with advanced mechanics.
Before this she was working as research chemist for Mars Confectionery after completing a doctorate in chemistry from Birkbeck University in London. She was picked to be one of two final candidates for Project Juno-a private British space program working with the Russian government to send a Briton to space. The two were sent to Star City in Russia to train for 18 months where they learned Russian, spent time with cosmonaut families, and prepared for landing at sea.
When selected as the final candidate she was only 27 years old and on May 18, 1991 Sharman, along with two cosmonauts, where launched aboard the Soyuz TM-12. Arriving on the MIR she became the first woman to be part of the crew of the space station. During her eight day mission she completed many experiments including investigating the effects of weightlessness on human bodies and plants, using an experimental air lock to place a rack of ceramic films outside MIR to find out what happens in response to the vacuum and radiation of space, growing protein crystals, and monitoring the color of certain parts of the Earth’s surface.
After returning from space she spent eight years as a science communicator, sharing the stories of her time aboard the MIR with the public and was named an Officer of the British Empire in 1993. Her autobiography was published in the same year and four years later she wrote a children’s book entitled Space Place.
Growing tired of the celebrity culture that took over her life, she withdrew from the spot light and returned to research including working as a group leader at the National Physics Laboratory. In 2015 she became the operations manager of the Department of Chemistry at Imperial College London and will occasionally give talks about her time as the first Briton in space.
Written by Angela Goad