Helen Sharman, the first Briton in space, reflects on her mission to the Mir space station 25 years ago. You can visit Helen’s website here.
Space missions capture the imagination. They turn people on to science. They broaden our horizons too. I can hardly believe that it has been 25 years since I played my small part in this great adventure, the next phase of human exploration.
My journey into space began in 1989 after I had answered an advertisement on my car radio: “Astronaut wanted. No experience necessary.” With Timothy Mace, I was eventually selected from over 13,000 applicants to represent the British Juno Mission and we spent 18 months training in Star City.
Times were hard in the Soviet Union in the early 90s. I did not have an office. Nor did I have a car for most of the time. Phone calls to the UK had to be booked with a Russian operator days in advance and were returned any time within a window of a few hours. If we disconnected, I had to book a call and wait a few more days.
My life was so remote that leaning Russian became my greatest priority and challenge, one that I tackled with the help of Igor Merkulov, my teacher. Last year, with the help of the Science Museum, we had a reunion in Star City. It was wonderful as if we had never been apart since my training. Even though he is now 84 years old, he was able to join me and we gossiped. Or at least I tried to in my broken, rusty Russian.
The centrifuge (for g-force experience) and hydro tank (for spacewalk training) were undergoing refurbishment when I visited but we did see the Soyuz and Mir simulators, alongside displays of a docking mechanism, space food, a space toilet, and a dreaded spinning chair. I had been lucky that my physiology is well suited to space training.
While being spun round, the poor trainee has to move their head from side to side and forwards and backward. Many feel nauseous and have to endure the chair regularly to build up stamina, which reduces the chance of them being space-sick. I was lucky, an outlier. Most people last five or so minutes to start with. I lasted 15 my first time around without batting an eyelid! The centrifuge was not a big deal for me either. Perhaps the greatest discomfort I suffered was doing tests in an off the shelf spacesuit, which was suited to fit a man.
I was eventually launched on 18 May 1991 in Soyuz TM-12 along with the Soviet cosmonauts Anatoly (‘Tole’) Artsebarsky and Sergei Krikalev. Our time in orbit was calm and focused – perhaps even laid back. When the batteries failed soon after we docked with the Mir Space Station, plunging us into darkness, another crew member, Viktor Afanasyev, simply shrugged and said: “we thought that might happen.”
From orbit, our planet is uncannily blue. You can’t imagine how deep the colour is, and the scale and details that you can discern, from the sweep of a continent to the wake of a ship. At night, the lights of cities shine up to you and you can see the dance of the aurora.
After eight days I returned to Earth with Viktor and Musa Manarov. Re-entry, at more than five times Earth’s gravity (5.5 g), was much more dramatic than the launch, where we only experienced 3.5g.
As we came through the atmosphere, I could see the ball of plasma around our descent module go orange and then yellow, before the windows were eventually blacked out by soot from the spacecraft. When the drogue chute pulled out the main parachute we jolted from side to side. I was shocked by the violence of the re-entry. After the retrorockets fired, we tumbled a few times before being left hanging inside, as the spacecraft came to a rest on its side.
During our reunion in Star City, we were joined by my commander, Tole, who had travelled out with me from Moscow. While we were standing underneath the Mir simulator, my old doctor, Vladimir Krivalapov, also turned up. Vladimir is now deputy head of the medical section for cosmonauts but when we first met he was assigned to the British Mission. Our encounter last year was the first time we had met in 24 years. Viktor Afanasev also joined us. I was fortunate that he had postponed a hospital visit (a few years ago, Viktor had a serious car accident and one of his legs was still in a cage).
Tole had brought with him traditional gifts of champagne and sweets and we toasted our friendship, our reunion, and we could easily pick up where we had left things after travelling together to space. Astronauts and cosmonauts are chosen for being gregarious, without being party animals, for their stable temperament, without being depressive or highly strung, and for their exceptional ability to get on.
Before Tim Peake was launched last December to the International Space Station, he asked if there was anything I would like him to take. I gave Tim my copy of Road to the Stars by Yuri Gagarin – which I had taken into orbit, so the crew of the ISS could add their signatures alongside those of my Mir crewmates.
We will have to work more closely together than ever before if we are to succeed in the next generation of space exploration. The next great objective is the one that Soviets dreamt about at the very start of human spaceflight with Gagarin’s launch in 1961: Mars. Would I like to join them in a mission to the red planet? If I knew I could return, I would do it in an instant.