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By Roger Highfield on

Galaxy of astronauts celebrates UK’s first spacefarer: Helen Sharman

A galaxy of astronauts gathered at the Science Museum to celebrate 25 years since Helen Sharman became the first Brit in space.

To mark the silver anniversary of Helen Sharman becoming the first UK citizen in space, she was joined at a special celebration in the Science Museum in May 2016 by 11 astronauts from the Association of Space Explorers.

In our IMAX theatre, Helen described the fairy tale story of how in 1989 she, then a food technologist, answered an advertisement on her car radio: “Astronaut wanted. No experience necessary.”

She was eventually selected from over 13,000 applicants and spent 18 months training in Star City before being launched on 18 May 1991.

She told me how it took two days to get to the Mir space station, how she smuggled an orange aboard, the ‘wonderful time’ she had in orbit (despite the moment the space station lost air circulation), and her tips on becoming an astronaut.

What mission would tempt her to put her spacesuit back on? ‘I’d go on anything.’

We were then joined on the IMAX stage by astronauts from across Europe: Franz Viehböck; Reinhold Ewald; Michel Tognini; Jean-Francois Clervoy; Claudie Haigneré; Dumitru Prunariu; Bertalan Farkas; Aleksandar Aleksandrov; Ernst Messerschmid; Jean-Pierre Haigneré; and Jean-Loup Chretien.

Among the many highlights: Dumitru Prunariu, a veteran of Salyut 6, described the work of the Association of Space Explorers; Bertalan Farkas recalled a remarkable 45g landing; Jean-Francois Clervoy, veteran of the Hubble repair mission, described what it feels like to cycle at 7 km/s;  Michel Tognini recounted serious problems encountered during the ascent of the Columbia space shuttle; Claudie Haigneré shared her dreams of a ‘moon village;’  Ernst Messerschmid talked about space tourism, and Franz Viehböck emphasised the importance of school in training future spacefarers.

There was also a tribute to Helen from Buzz Aldrin and Prof Brian Cox and Helen and her fellow astronauts were given a tour of the museum’s exhibition, Leonardo da Vinci: The Mechanics of Genius.

The night before, at Imperial College London where she is the Operations Manager of the Department of Chemistry, Helen was joined by Anatoly Artsebarsky and Sergei Krikalev, her fellow crewmates from the Soyuz TM-12 mission that launched her into the history books.

The first UK European Space Agency astronaut, Tim Peake, sent Helen his congratulations in a phone call from the International Space Station after a number of events at Imperial. Helen also attended the 2016 Soviet/Chinese Technical Forum of the British Interplanetary Society.

Discover more highlights in my Storify and read Helen’s story of her pioneering mission, in her own words.