Helen Sharman

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Biography of Helen Sharman, British, Doctor in Chemistry. On May 18, 1991, she became the first British cosmonaut to travel into space.

She did so aboard the Soyuz TM-12 spacecraft.

Helen Sharman’s childhood and early studies

Helen Sharman was born on May 30, 1963, in Grenoside a neighborhood of Sheffield, a city located in the county of South Yorkshire, in the United Kingdom.

Grenoside Main Street in 1955. Credit: web francisfrith.com

Helen is the daughter of John Sharman and Lyndis Sharman. She has two brothers: James Sharman and Andrea Sharman.

Helen Sharman graduated in Chemistry

She pursued higher studies at the University of Sheffield.

In 1984, at age 21, she graduated in Chemistry.

Immediately afterwards, encouraged by parents, Helen enrolled at Birkbeck College, University of London.

This College is a university that is part of the Federal University of London.

Birkbeck College is a public research university, located in the Bloomsbury neighborhood of London. Credit: en.wikipedia.org

Upon completion of her studies at Birkbeck, Helen Sharman obtained a Ph.D. in Chemistry.

Her doctoral thesis dealt with the luminescence of rare earth ions.

Helen Sharman’s working life

After obtaining her doctorate in chemistry, Helen worked as an engineer in the development of cathode ray tubes for the General Electric Company, an electricity and electronics company, in London.

Later, she was hired as a chemist at “Mars Incorporated“, where she worked researching the flavors and properties of chocolate.

Helen Sharman on the Anglo-Soviet project

In 1989, four years before the construction of the International Space Station began, a group of British companies signed an agreement with the Soviet Union, to work on a joint project to send “cosmonauts” to the Mir space station.

Mir means peace ”in Russian. It was the first space station. Credit: web abc.es/20121112/ciencia

Mir was the first research space station.

It had been assembled in orbit by successively connecting different modules, each launched separately, from February 19, 1986 to 1996.

It was located in an orbit between 300 and 400 kilometers from the Earth’s surface, completely orbiting the Earth in less than two hours.

The Mir served as a test laboratory for numerous scientific experiments and astronomical observations.

In 1989, Helen Sharman heard an advertisement on the radio announcing the selection of British scientists for a Russian space mission.

Good academic knowledge and ability to learn a foreign language were required.

Helen Sharman ran along with 13,000 other candidates.

On November 25, 1989, she was selected to undertake 18 months of training at the “Gagarin Center“.

Helen Sharman received training in Russia

Helen underwent a rigorous screening process, which focused on medical and psychological evaluations.

The tests included tolerance to altitude sickness and movement, technical understanding and practical skills.

She learned how to live in a small space and how to face the return. This return could end on land or at sea.

During these 18 months in the “City of Stars“, a small town located northeast of Moscow, she learned to speak Russian.

She also had the opportunity to meet the families of the cosmonauts.

She was finally selected as a “cosmonaut” for the Soyuz TM-12 mission that would travel to the Mir space station.

In space missions it was important to have scientists; Hence, NASA selected women like Peggy Whitson and Shannon Lucid who are also experts in chemistry and biochemistry.

Helen Sharman finally traveled to space

The Soyuz TM-12 mission also included Soviet cosmonauts Anatoly Artsebarsky and Sergei Krikaliov; it lasted 8 days.

Most of these days were spent inside Mir.

The Soyuz TM-12 was launched on May 18, 1991, and docked at Mir station on May 20, 1991.

The two cosmonauts who were already on Mir welcomed Commander Anatoli Artsebarski, flight engineer Sergei Krikalev and British researcher Helen Sharman on board.

Helen Sharman crew
The crew of the Soyuz M-12. Artsebarski, Helen Sharman, and Krikalev. Credit: web spacefacts.de

Helen Sharman’s experimental program, which was designed by the Soviets, was largely focused on the life sciences.

This is the specialty of this brilliant British chemist.

Once in space, Helen’s assignments included medical, agricultural and chemical experiments, materials testing, Earth observation work, and operating an amateur radio link with British school students.

In a compartment that was not as protected from cosmic radiation as other Mir compartments, a bag of 250,000 thought seeds was placed.

When these seeds were back on Earth, they were used for British school students to use as part of an experiment.

This experiment consisted of investigating the effects of space travel on the seeds, comparing them with a control sample.

While at Mir, Helen conducted experiments with high-temperature superconductors with the Elektropograph-7K device.

On May 21, 1991, Helen Sharman had a radio communication session with nine British schools.

During the session she commented that Mir was experiencing problems with the solar installation due to the changing orientation of the station.

Late that day, fans, circulating pumps, and other equipment were turned off. The lights began to go out.

The cause was the failure of a computer that controlled the orientation system of the solar panels. By not receiving the sunlight properly, the batteries had drained.

Afanaseyev and Manarov told Helen that such problems had happened before.

When sunlight hit the screens again, the station was able to recharge its batteries.

Along with other activities, media interviews and a telephone conversation with President Mikhail Gorbachev were held.

The return to Earth was on May 28, 1991. She landed in Kazakhstan. Credit: web austromir.at

Honors received after her trip to space

There is no doubt that the whole of the UK was proud to have the first British female astronaut.

Especially in her city, she received all kinds of honors.

In 1991 she was chosen to carry the flame at the opening ceremony of the college sports games in Sheffield.

In 1993, as a pioneer in space, she was made an honorary member of the Royal Society of Chemistry of the United Kingdom.

The British school in Assen, the Netherlands was named “Helen Sharman School” in her honor.

Later activities of Helen Sharman

After her return from space, Helen spent many years communicating science and its benefits to young people and the general public.

She participated in conferences and scientific events.

She collaborated with the BBC television network, in three series of the program “Seeing through science“.

She published the book “Seize the moment“, with the purpose that young people learn from the experience she had, betting on something difficult but not impossible.

She received a “Medal for Merits in Space Exploration,” and the esteemed “Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.”

Helen Sharman Queen Elizabeth
Queen Elizabeth, at Windsor Castle, honors the first British astronaut. Credit: web express.co.uk

Helen Sharman continues to be involved in campaigns to improve science education in the UK.

Most recently, she has worked as a Manager at the “National Physics Laboratory” in Teddington and at Kingston University, London.

Helen Sharman is currently “Operations Manager” in the Department of Chemistry at Imperial College London.

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