‘People like to see their nation doing well.’
Dr Helen Sharman is a small, spry woman with clear, pale skin. Twenty years after she flew into space in a blaze of headlines, she works at the National Physical Laboratory, on the outskirts of west London. A chemist by training, she leads a team of around 20 scientists who examine the properties of surfaces. Sharman has only been doing the job for a few months; in fact, it’s the first time since 1989 that her work has had nothing to do with her space flight. “It’s nice to be back among science,” she says, sitting upright on a laboratory stool, her hands tapping the seat, ready for the next question.
There was something never quite right about the dispatch of the first Briton to space. In the 1980s, the Soviet space agency began selling the third – scientist’s – seat on its Soyuz spacecraft. Austria and Japan both paid their way. But the UK government refused – then, as now – to put taxpayers’ money into human space flight. Instead, the private sector decided to fund “Project Juno”.
After a bright start (“Astronaut wanted: no experience necessary” went the Saatchi and Saatchi advertisements), the project almost fizzled out. Heavy on razzmatazz, light on scientific backing and viewed neutrally by the government, Juno managed to attract only three sponsors, and only one piece of British equipment (examining the effects of microgravity on pansy seeds) was carried. The eventual blast-off coincided with the players warming up for the FA Cup final, meaning that barely anyone in the UK watched it.
Caught among these strange forces was Helen Sharman. A young food chemist at Mars (cue headlines), she was 26 when she was chosen live on ITV from more than 13,000 applicants. The tabloids barely disguised their disappointment when they found that she was nothing but a bright, ordinary girl from Sheffield, who liked badminton, learning languages and riding a motorbike. Methodical and restrained, she earned a reputation for coolness. “I’m not going into infinity,” she told a reporter who asked her if she was scared. “I’m going into low earth orbit.”
The poise, the watchfulness is still there. She stresses, 20 years on, the validity of the Soviet experiments and how much she gained from her time in Russia. Star City taught Sharman about the veneration of astronauts. When they return from space, Russian crews still leave flowers at the monument to Gagarin, and Sharman watched Boris Yeltsin miscalculate by promising that he would drastically cut the USSR’s manned space programme. “People didn’t want to lose what had become, essentially, their one source of national pride,” she said.
The one issue that Sharman campaigns against is the UK’s continuing reluctance to publicly fund its astronauts. “There is this aspect which you can’t quantify,” she said, “that people like to see their nation doing well. Which is why we are spending all this money on the Olympics if you think about it, isn’t it?”
In the ambivalent setting of Juno, Sharman was the steady, clear-eyed heroine. “The air is very fresh. Smell the flowers, they are wonderful,” she said when she landed in Kazakhstan. But when she returned to her home in Surbiton, Sharman was left to work out her own future. She spent eight years giving lectures, but in 2000, she stopped. Sharman does not talk about the 10 years that followed, and which ended with her starting a new job at the NPL last October. If there was a sadness, it will remain – like her amazing adventure – a private, carefully considered thing. When I suggested to Sharman that she had handled her life as an astronaut well, it was the only time she seemed remotely fazed. “If I didn’t, what would I have done?” She asked. “I didn’t have a choice, did I?”