Best of Times: I thought the world of those cosmonauts: Helen Sharman talks to Danny Danziger

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Indy Lifestyle Online
ANATOLY PAVLOVICH and Sergei Krikalyev were my commander and engineer. We we very, very good friends. Before going into space, we'd spent months together training, so we'd suffered and sweated together, and that brings you quite close.

By the time I left the space station, they had become more than friends, more than colleagues. I will never have as close a relationship with anybody, even a partner, as I had with those two people.

Tolya has a good sense of humour, and is very charming. He's very cool, doesn't panic - which of course is just what you want for the commander of your spacecraft. Sergei, the engineer, had been into space before. He was the joker of the three of us, messing around, lots of practical jokes, but very clever, knows his stuff.

The launch was exhilarating, the 3.5 g thrust, the slight buffeting as different parts of the rocket separated, while we sat in the command module.

The Soyuz craft is made of three modules. One is where the fuel tanks and electronics are situated, and the crew never goes there. The command module, where we sat for the launch, houses the control panels. The orbital module is where we spent most of the time between launching and getting to the space station. It's a confined environment, about the size of a London taxi; the toilet is there, there was a fold-down table where we could eat, food and water was stored there.

In the evenings we ate dinner together. Because of weightlessness, everything you eat is either sucked or squeezed. We had meat, fish and vegetable puree, freeze-dried and vacuum-packed, packets of sweet dried fruit juice that could be reconstituted, soup you would suck through a spout, and tubes

of cheese that you squeezed like toothpaste.

During launch, the outside of the rocket is covered in a protective fairing, so we couldn't see outside, but as soon as that was jettisoned my first view of the earth was over the Pacific Ocean, which was this wonderful deep blue, with clouds just over the top, and sunlight streaming in through the window.

From space, the earth appears predominantly blue, the clouds are brilliant white. Surprisingly, you don't see much green, although Ireland looks green, and so do Scandinavia and New Zealand. The deserts are brick red and really stand out.

There's no sky in space, so it was always pitch black above us, and crammed full of stars. During the first part of the journey there was a constant period of checking, and talking to Mission Control, making sure the solar panels had opened properly, checking the pressure, making sure we weren't leaking any atmosphere into space, and the computers were working OK. Later there was time, sometimes two or three hours at a stretch, where we could just float about in the orbital modules and look out of the window.

We didn't feel the need to talk all the time, it was enough just to experience each other's company. I knew how differently they would be thinking; Tolya saw the mathematical and philosophical side of space and infinity, Sergei would relate things more to himself.

No one tired of looking out. Because we were orbiting the earth faster than earth spins on its axis, we went around the earth 16 times a day, an earth day, which meant 16 periods of lightness and 16 periods of darkness in 24 hours. Every so often you'd look towards the earth, and often you could see lightness and darkness together, and dawn and sunset were spectacular.

We had to sleep in sleeping bags and tie them to something to stop them floating away. Officially, two of us should have slept in the orbital module, and the other one gone down into the command module, but we all wanted to sleep together, so we put the sleeping bags 90 degrees to each other. Tolya slept on the ceiling, Sergei found a place midway between the ceiling and the floor, so that when I woke up in the morning I could see Tolya's face on my left, and Sergei on my right. We just wanted to be together.

The space station Mir was in a circular orbit, between 220 and 250 miles up.

Docking on to the station should happen automatically, but as we got close, Sergei said: 'Something is wrong . . .' We checked everything, and realised we were getting misinformation on the control panel, the automatic systems had failed. So we had to dock manually. Suddenly, we had to rely on each other - for our lives.

I was operating a telescope so Tolya could see where he was going through his screen, Sergei was checking the systems we knew were correct, and directing Tolya using those, literally, 'up a bit, left a bit', while inching our way towards the station. The two cosmonauts already on board the station, Viktor and Musa, couldn't do anything other than watch us, but we could talk to them on the radio, which boosted our confidence.

We got closer and closer, and then there was a bump, a bit more of a bump than there would have been had it all been automatic. But we'd done it, there was this feeling of elation and togetherness, and a lot of talk and hugs, all three of us together, which felt great.

Then we floated through to the space station, which is a number of long, thin cylindrical modules joined together in a T-shape and stuffed full of equipment.

I began doing my duties as a research cosmonaut, and I performed a whole range of experiments from medical to technical.

I was up there for six days, and then came back with Musa and Viktor, and left Tolya and Sergei there. I was sad to leave the station, there was still so much work I could do. I wasn't ready to leave.

The hardest thing I've ever done in my life was saying goodbye to Tolya and Sergei.

There was a press conference, organised by Mission Control, where we got in front of the TV camera and said goodbye, and that was quite sad. But then we turned off the camera, and came back and said goodbye properly. It was a private thing, very emotional, and I didn't want the rest of the world to see it. Me and Tolya and Sergei, we felt overpoweringly close.

We closed the hatch on our Soyuz craft. Tolya and Sergei closed their hatch, but I could hear them moving about, and the lumps and bumps as we disconnected.

Gradually, we drifted further and further away from the space station, until we were far enough away safely to fire the retro rockets to come back to earth.

At first we could hear each other very well over the radio, but then radio contact gradually became crackly, and you couldn't hear certain words. And that was sad, we really were going to have to say goodbye now. But we wanted to be together until the last moment possible, even if it was only by radio. Tolya said: 'Wait a minute, I want to say goodbye with this . . .' And he put on a Tanita Tikaram song, from a tape I had recorded before we went up. He chose my favourite track, 'World Outside Your Window', and though he didn't understand the words, he liked her deep, sultry voice.

I was in tears - I'm almost in tears talking about it - and that was it until we couldn't hear them any more; Tanita Tikaram just sort of faded into space.

Coming back down to earth was fine. Everything operated as it should do, and we relied completely on the automatic systems.

As the craft re-entered earth's atmosphere, it was coming in so fast, it heated up the surrounding atoms and molecules, and they became positively and negatively charged, and highly reactive, and began luminescing all around us.

It started as a glow around the spacecraft, then turned a faint browny orange, which became more and more intense until it turned to a white heat, and we could see fireballs racing across the side of the window. It was just wonderful.

We touched down in northern Kazakhstan. It was quite windy, and we rolled and tumbled a few times before we eventually stopped.

I had slight bruising to my face, because my head slammed up against the front of the visor, but there was so much adrenalin going, I didn't feel any pain.

The rescue team had seen us come down, and within five minutes I could hear the helicopter. They cracked open the hatch of the spacecraft, and we got this great rush of fresh air, and all the rescue team were putting their arms in and shaking our hands.

I was given a bunch of roses when I was dragged out of the capsule, and I remember the scent - it was beautiful.

I often look at the sky, especially on a starry night. I look up because I know that the station is there, and my friends are there, good friends, people I have worked with and people I know I'll see again when they get back down.

And I know I will never be as close to anyone as I was with Tolya and Sergei.

Helen Sharman's biography, 'Seize The Moment', is published later this month by Victor Gollancz.

(Photographs omitted)