It’s 25 years since Helen Sharman left Earth in a Soyuz spacecraft, destined for the Mir space station, to become the first British astronaut. To celebrate the anniversary, Sharman was reunited with her spacesuit and her cosmonaut crew at the Science Museum, just a short walk from where Sharman now works in the chemistry department of Imperial College London.
Along with Tim Peake, who has less than a month remaining of his six-month mission on the International Space Station, she's one of only two people with sole British citizenship to have been to space (there have been others with joint citizenship, who’ve mostly flown as NASA astronauts). Unless the government decides to fund more human spaceflight sometime soon, they could remain the only Brits to hold that distinction for a long time.
Sharman was 26 when she answered an advert for the position and, after beating 13,000 other applicants and undergoing 18 months of training at Star City in Moscow, flew when she was 27. Her eight-day mission to the Mir space station, then still run by the Soviet Union, was one of several co-operative programmes with European countries. The UK did not have a human spaceflight programme at the time there was no government money put up for the flight, so it was funded partly by private British companies and television rights sold to ITV.
Though it all happened a quarter of a century ago, she says she can still recount the launch as if it was yesterday – “It was such an emotional and intense time.” – and remembers the first time she could see out of the window on the trip to Mir.
“We were over the Pacific Ocean, and I could see that the Earth is curved, and black up there, and blue and white clouds down below," she tells BuzzFeed News. "I just remember thinking this is an amazing view, something I've been looking forward to seeing for so long. Then I remember the docking on to the space station, greeting the cosmonauts who'd been up for there for months – they were of course delighted to have a bit of extra company. I remember the actual floating around and feeling weightless, which is such a free feeling.”
Things on Mir were a little different to what astronauts are used to these days. For starters, Sharman says, the ISS “is a bit like a three- or four-star hotel” compared with Mir and other older space stations. On Mir it was much harder to communicate with people back on Earth when you were up in space. “Basically, once we were around the other side of Earth from mission control there was no contact with mission control until we came round nearer to the Soviet Union territories again,” she says.
But, perhaps more importantly, these days there’s now a whole network of astronauts to lend advice throughout training and missions. “I don't think astronauts any more feel isolated in the same way I might have done 25 years ago when it was really just me and the Soviet Union, and I was the lone Briton taking part in someone else's space programme.”
As far as Sharman is concerned, the public have already made clear that they want another British astronaut after Peake returns to Earth next month.
“I think the government knows that the public really does want us to continue with human spaceflight,” she tells BuzzFeed News. “We've been so enthusiastic with Tim Peake's flight, and actually 25 years ago, the public, young and old, were very keen to find out more about my spaceflight and were very, very supportive of that.”
The UK has long had a nonhuman spaceflight industry, but Peake was the first government-backed British astronaut. "Right now the government is supporting human spaceflight, but once Tim lands that's finished," says Sharman. "There is no funding for another mission yet. What I'd really like is for the UK government to continue to support human spaceflight so that there will be another Briton in space."
She says she can feel people becoming "exasperated" that, as a country, the UK is getting left out of the long-term future of human spaceflight. “Britain has been taking itself further and further away from these collaborative international projects," she says. "Science is a collaborative thing – especially when you're working on very costly projects, it makes absolute sense to collaborate. We need more British people in space. We need to continue to collaborate with other agencies."
Peake returns to Earth on 18 June. The flight back down from the ISS is physically harder than the one up, says Sharman, with strong deceleration forces about five and a half times normal Earth gravity.
But once Peake touches down, he's going to have to deal with more of a mental slog. "He's going to feel initially very much like he's just part of a process," Sharman says. "He's going to be on a conveyor belt of a medical debriefing, and there'll be a technical debriefing, and he will have to give loads and loads of press conferences – he's going to be owned by people who are making him do what they want him to do for a while.
"He'll be really looking forward to coming back, to opening the hatch, to smelling that fresh air, but more than anything he's going to want to meet his family, and to talk to his family and friends again, so let's hope he's going to be able to do that quite soon."