Helen Sharman: The perfect ‘quietly determined’ college student who went to space at 27
May 18, 1991 was an important day at Meadowhead School in South Sheffield: it was Parents’ Night.
But before that, there was another question on Principal Ken Cook’s mind – his former student Helen Sharman was about to soar into space.
“I remember the day there was a lot of excitement, ”said Ken YorkshireLive.
As Helen sat in the Soyuz TM-12 space capsule with her Soviet teammates ready to leave Kazakhstan, waiting to write the story, Director Ken answered questions from two Evening Standard reporters in Meadowhead.
“The most important thing they asked was “What’s the dirt on her?”, “Ken said.”I said: ‘Nothing, she was actually perfect. ‘”
Born in the now demolished Jessop Hospital in 1963, Helen grew up in Grenoside and then in Greenhill, attending Meadowhall when she was still known as the Jordanthorpe Comprehensive.
Principal Ken remembers her as a “quietly determined” student.
“She was the ideal student, “he said.” She took life very seriously. “
“She was one of those very quietly determined people and most of the time you didn’t realize she was there, ”Ken told Sheffield University last year.
“She is truly a product of Sheffield.”
After completing sixth form at Jordanthorpe, Helen studied chemistry at the University of Sheffield and graduated in 1984.
Former classmate Dr Anthony Bell, now an academic at Sheffield Hallam University, recalls his early successes. Last year he told the University of Sheffield: “We were all trying to find jobs and Helen was offered seven jobs ”.
“I thought “this lady was going to go far,” but I didn’t know she was going to go. “
Sharman, 27, was chosen from 13,000 applicants to be Britain’s first astronaut in history after responding to a radio commercial as she returned from Mars.
Not the planet, of course – the chocolate company where she worked as a food technologist in Slough.
“The astronaut wanted. No experience needed,” said the radio.
“It was describing something I had never dreamed of before and I knew I wanted to do it,” Helen told Science in Sheffield in 2018.
A group of British companies, including British Aerospace, had put together an offer known as Project Juno to buy a seat for a British astronaut on the Soviet Union’s next space flight – although the USSR ultimately had to cover part of the costs.
Out of 13,000 applicants, Helen and three others were chosen to begin their training in the Soviet Union.
This was then reduced to two: Helen and Major Timothy Mace of the Army Air Corps.
The candidates underwent rigorous 18-month training at Star City, where they had to learn Russian – as well as the little question of spaceflight.
Sessions in an underwater replica of the Mir space station trained them to deal with weightlessness, claustrophobia and survival in space.
When the time came to take off in May 1991, Helen was chosen as the preferred candidate.
On the morning of the 18th, she took with her a photo of the queen, a butterfly brooch from her father and a “space passport” in case she landed outside the USSR.
At 1350 BST, the Soyuz TM-12 was launched with Helen and two Soviet astronauts on board.
Broadcast live on ITV, the event was watched by thousands of people – including, of course, Principal Ken and the Meadowhead students.
“It was quite an important thing for the school, ”he said.We sent him a greeting.
“She was one of our first six trainers. We have set up our own sixth form building, a prefabricated because the [council] didn’t have the money.
“We started from nothing.”
Helen’s parents, John and Lyndis, watched the take-off live, from a nearby observation deck.
Ironically, the worst view of the launch was in the Soyuz cockpit – a shroud covered the entire rocket to protect the spacecraft as it passed through the atmosphere.
“Once we’re about 150 kilometers high, the fairing is released and suddenly light comes in through the window, ”Helen said in the 2018 interview.
“I remember looking out and we were over the Pacific Ocean and I could see the blue below and the black of space. “
For the next eight days, Helen conducted experiments on the Mir space station and called British schools from space.
When she landed in Kazakhstan on May 26, she told the BBC: “The air is very fresh. Smell the flowers, they are wonderful.”
Although she has not returned to space since, Helen continues to be enthusiastic about the Last Frontier as a public speaker and ambassador for Imperial College London.
“In the end, I grew up and understood my place on Earth a lot better and how I relate to everything else as well,” she said in 2018.
But the Sheffield legend still remembers everyone who helped her on her way to the stars.
“She was talking at Sheffield Town Hall, I I still remember her story of how she was responsible for putting the videotapes in the spaceship, ”Director Ken said.
“Geoff Wilson, his math teacher, taught him how to do it. He used to say if you were wrong, “You potato cake.” “