Why Do More People Not Know About Helen Sharman, the First Brit in Space?

25 years ago today, Helen Sharman became the first Brit in space.

|
May 18 2016, 5:50pm

Helen Sharman is reunited with her old spacesuit at the Science Museum on the 25th anniversary of her launch. Image: Thomas Angus/Imperial College London

Twenty-five years ago today, and over 24 years before Tim Peake's launch to the International Space Station, Helen Sharman became the first Brit in space.

Sharman's story is a fascinating one, but it's one that's been weirdly rather forgotten. The nation has neglected the legacy of its first astronaut, even as it celebrates with great bombast the mission of its latest.

On May 18, 1991, Sharman launched on the Soyuz TM-12 mission to the Mir space station as part of a programme based on an agreement between Britain and the Soviet Union, and dubbed Project Juno. The 27-year-old astronaut from Sheffield became the first Brit in space, and the first woman on Mir. The mission lasted eight days; it was Sharman's first and only. She returned to Earth a British hero.

And yet today, Helen Sharman, who still works as a chemist, isn't nearly as widely known as she should be. The fanfare around Tim Peake before his launch in December last year magnified this; Peake was often erroneously referred to as the first Brit in space. The UK Space Agency apparently attempted to modify the superlative by calling him the first "official" British astronaut, presumably alluding to the fact that he is the first British astronaut to fly with the European Space Agency.

The snub, according to a recent interview with the Guardian, didn't go unnoticed by Sharman.

Helen Sharman on the 25th anniversary of her spaceflight. Image: Thomas Angus/Imperial College London

Several factors likely have to do with Sharman's lack of comparative fame, including her own decision to retreat from the spotlight and, let's face it, the fact that she's a woman (in the Guardian piece, she complains at having been asked about her clothes rather than her science). The circumstances of her spaceflight were also unusual, and ultimately probably a little awkward for the UK.

Sharman was selected to fly when she heard a radio ad for astronauts, no experience required. This "chance" element of her journey—as well as the fact she used to work in a chocolate manufacturer—is often repeated, but it's important to note that Sharman, who was a chemist at Mars confectionary company, went through a selection process against thousands of applicants and underwent rigorous training.

She was to join Project Juno, the idea of which was to get private funding from British companies to buy a seat on the Soviet Union's Soyuz. But the project didn't come up with the amount needed. In their book Realizing Tomorrow: The Path to Private Spaceflight, authors Chris Dubbs and Emeline Paat-Dahlstrom recount that the Soviet government "chose to save face by covering the costs of the project." Some planned British experiments were scrapped.

On the 25th anniversary of her pioneering adventure, Sharman—who is now operations manager at Imperial College London's chemistry department—has spoken out about the ongoing need for the UK government to fund British spaceflight.

"I don't know how much the British public understands that the government has paid for one spaceflight," she told the BBC in a video. "This is Tim Peake. He's been in space for a few months, he's going to come back in June, and that is it—unless we continue to fund, which I really hope will be the case."

Perhaps ironically, the launch of not-the-first British astronaut has led to something of a rekindled interest in Sharman's own legacy. Here's to hoping the next 25 years see other Brits follow in her spacesuited steps, too.